I sometimes miss Tenebrae. Tenebrae is a service is held during Holy Week. Most often, it has been observed tonight, on the eve of Maundy Thursday (the day of the Last Supper) or in the early hours of the morning on Thursday. Practices vary widely. But traditionally, the lights are gradually dimmed or candles extinguished until the room is completely dark, but for one candle. The “Christ candle.”
Holy Week is often a difficult time for students and pastors, devoting much of their life to the Bible. Sure it is one of the busiest weeks of the year. Yes, the whole week centers on Jesus betrayal by Judas and the passion narrative. But it also difficult for other reasons. For close readers of the text, it is natural to come to a point where you say what the hell happened? According to Matthew and Mark this is the night Jesus was anointed by an unnamed woman with expensive oil. On his head (Matthew, Mark)? On his feet (John)? According to John, the anointing was by Mary the sister of Martha (and Lazarus) the day before Palm Sunday. According to Luke the anointing was much earlier in Jesus ministry – unconnected to Holy Week – and done by “a woman who had been sinful all her life.” Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus visits Mary and Martha for dinner. The story is completely unrelated to Jesus’ anointing or Holy Week. Jesus uses it as a teaching moment to say Mary had “chosen what is better” by sitting, adoring Jesus instead of running around busting her ass to make a nice meal, like Martha.
It was a busy night! According to Matthew and Mark (and seemingly Luke) this is also the night that Judas agreed to betray Jesus. Poor Judas, Jesus said it would have been better for him had he not been born. I guess so. He might be the only person to ever commit suicide twice: Hanging himself (in Matthew) and and ‘falling headlong, and bursting open in the middle of his bowels’ (Acts).
And then of course, Jesus is tried and crucified on the day of preparation for Sabbath (Matthew, Mark, Luke) or was it on the day of preparation for Passover (John). Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus eating Passover with the disciples on Thursday, while John has Jesus washing feet and dying on a different day.
Even the joy of Easter day does not come without a few nagging questions. How many women went early in the morning and discovered the empty tomb? Was it just Mary Magdalene like John has it? How many angels were there? One or two?
Maybe you can see why a relaxing service with ever dimming lights and some low melodic singing or chanting was a welcomed reprieve during this week when I was a pastor in training, a budding theologian.
I cannot reconcile all of these accounts. I have no desire to. I have read some pretty silly attempts to do so. But neither do I think discrepancies alone invalidate the Christian claims about Easter or Jesus’ divinity. That is a complex “argument” that involves other messianic figures around the same time period, the omnipresence of evil and unspeakable tragedies and the long overdue delivery date of “the second coming.” What I can tell you is that the more I feel like an outsider looking in, it doesn’t necessarily lesson the anxiety of this week for me. Blame it on social conditioning, religious guilt, my anxiety disorder or some combination of all of the above. I don’t know. Maybe I need to think a little less about god, Jesus the Bible and how it all seems to help some people become better versions of themselves, while in others it only seems to intensify the ugliness of their hearts. What I can say is that I find myself missing Tenebrae. I need to relax. Tonight I’ll settle for a whiskey & coke, taking a stab at a short poem and being in bed before 1.