Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2015/11 posted by hidden europe on

It is the season for shadows. No other week in the ecclesiastical calendar comes with such a hefty dose of liturgical theatre as that which concludes with Easter. It is a week which has its highs and lows, its exuberant periods of light balanced by dark interludes.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

It is the season for shadows. No other week in the ecclesiastical calendar comes with such a hefty dose of liturgical theatre as that which concludes with Easter. It is a week which has its highs and lows, its exuberant periods of light balanced by dark interludes.

It is a week when church services spill over onto the streets of Europe. We have seen Palm Sunday processions - which nowadays rely on fresh sprigs from local hedgerows rather than imported palms. Today, the road to Calvary is recalled in communities across Europe, often with outdoor processions, culminating in the tre ore and the mid-afternoon liturgy. Then on the night from Saturday till Sunday, the faithful gather - often in the wee hours just prior to dawn - around fires for the Easter proclamation and the traditional rite of lucernarium where the entire congregation processes by candlelight into the church.

These are the well known liturgical offerings of the season, but there are others. In Roman Catholic cathedrals across Europe earlier this week, the annual Chrism Mass was celebrated. It is at this service that the holy oils which will be used in liturgies across the diocese in the months ahead are blessed.

The notion of service to the poor was symbolised in the washing of feet at services across Europe last evening, but in England the practice of those in high office humbling themselves before the lowly finds unusual expression in the distribution of Maundy money. Each year, the reigning monarch visits a cathedral and distributes coins - which are minted especially for the occasion - to the poor. The quaintly styled Office of the Royal Maundy was hosted yesterday morning by Sheffield Cathedral.

Yet there is one service associated with the run-up to Easter which is even more replete with quiet drama than any already mentioned here. That is the ancient rite of tenebrae, a word that means 'shadows' in Latin. There are only three nights of the year when you might run across tenebrae - and those are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week. Services take place late evening or early the following morning.Tenebrae is notable for its use of candles. With each psalm or canticle, another candle is extinguished, thus progressively slipping from light and shadow to darkness.

The service of tenebrae has powerfully influenced European music. In France it inspired an entire genre of baroque music, still known today as leçons de ténèbres. It is a service full of dark mystery - but one that all too rarely features in the register of public services at parish churches.

Happily, at least one Catholic church in our home city of Berlin has a long tradition of singing tenebrae during the Paschal Triduum. By all accounts, the Mater Dolorosa community in Berlin-Lankwitz first introducedtenebraeinto Holy Week liturgies in 1940. And 75 years later the tradition is still going strong. Good for them!

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Much of Europe celebrates Easter this weekend, but the old calendarists of the Orthodox tradition mark Pascha on 12 April. If you liked this issue of our Letter from Europe, you might enjoy an earlier Good Friday newsletter (from 2013).

Posted in Seasons
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.