After Darkness, Light
By Lisa Wallover
Good Friday

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2023.

I have a vivid childhood memory of sitting in the sanctuary on Good Friday evening, singing songs in minor keys, and hearing the Scriptures that took us to that day of days…from the upper room, to betrayal, denial, mocking, crucifixion, death. Powerful in their own right, these elements were pressed upon me by the moving and symbolic darkening of the room, the extinguishing of candles, the growing shadows. 

As we all left in silence, we had a sense of the weight of that night, 2,000 years ago. The seriousness of sin. The cost of redemption — for the world, and for me.

Against such darkness, the joy of Easter morning–He is risen indeed!–was even greater for having felt the weight of sorrow.

As an adult, I was so grateful when our music director at Harvest PCA in Medina, Ohio, introduced a similar service at Harvest. The distinctive Tenebrae service (from the Latin, meaning “darkness/shadows” because of the extinguishing of candles) can be adapted in many ways, and our director had a very specific structure in mind: Scripture, Song, and Story.

I had the privilege of contributing to the depth of this service by adding the needed “story” element: readings spoken from the perspective of Biblical individuals in response to the events of Good Friday. Scripture readings and choral songs completed the design, repeated seven times, leading from the Upper Room to the sealed tomb.

Mark Robertson (now pastor of Safe Harbor PCA in Maryland) was a church planting intern at Harvest when he was introduced to our Tenebrae service by participating as its Narrator. “The Tenebrae services capture the pace and measure of the gospel moment beautifully. The congregation has responded in feeling the weight of the Passion story and commented on how meaningful it has been to them,” he said. “These services not only communicate the narrative clearly, they also ground us in the right tone of the Easter story.”

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, this service of solemn reflection and yes, sorrow, became quickly well-loved by the congregation, and by all generations. 

Artist and choir member Karen Pezutti noticed how the Tenebrae service “draws in people from the community who may never come into a church otherwise. It has become the favorite service for most at our church. These services have, at least for me, brought to life the single most important event in human history. I am blessed to have been a part of these services over the years and look forward to them every year.”

One of the benefits of the design of these services is that they provide both structure and flexibility. The Scripture readings and narratives are set, while the music that accompanies the readings can be determined by each music director. The only direction is that the songs highlight the reflective nature of the service, referring to the crucifixion but not the resurrection. 

Tim Nicholson, director of music at Covenant Presbyterian Church, Nashville, and founder of Liturgy Collective, notes that these services “offer church leaders a dynamic liturgical resource that can be easily customized to the context of any church. I especially appreciate that the musical elements can be customized to match the canon of song within a given community.”

Initially, I wrote a series of four services, each based on a different Gospel, each with 12 readers and rich musical selections. Creating narratives based on the specific Gospels challenged me to dig deeply into the texts, considering key themes and how Jesus is encountered in each of the accounts. Writing became a meaningful time of study and prayer. As members of the congregation added their participation as readers, musicians, or congregants, they, too, were touched anew by the power of the gospel story heard and sung.

And then, 2020 came, bringing distance and darkness, in so many ways.

By Spring of 2021, like many others, we were gathering again as a Body, but with precautions. It was the church’s great desire to celebrate Holy Week together, including a Tenebrae service. But there would be no full choir. Fewer readers. The congregation would need to be distanced. It felt like loss.

Acknowledging this loss was a key connection for us, as it aptly reflected Good Friday. That was the ultimate day of distance and darkness.

And so, Beneath the Cross was written in light of and in response to our shared human condition. Hearing the seven last words of Christ from the cross and imagining their impact on six people who actually knew Him was the strong reminder we all needed – and need still –  that Jesus meets us in the place of darkness and distance, and tells us that He has traveled the darkest road of all, alone, to bring us Home.

With a focus on Christ’s reconciling work on the cross, bringing us back into a right relationship with God, the service is a meaningful reminder that we were not abandoned nor alone. This is the message of the gospel for every generation.

The Reformers’ motto was Post Tenebras Lux: “After Darkness, Light!” This is the message of the gospel. Jesus is the light of the world.

Sitting alongside others on Good Friday, as the room darkens and we are reminded together of the cost of our salvation, we are captured again by the deep, deep love of Jesus. God’s grace is greater than all our sin.

“Beneath The Cross” is one of several works in the Post Tenebras Lux series of Good Friday services from PCA Discipleship Ministries (CDM). Learn more here. Other titles include “Kingdom Blessings” based on the beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew;The Way of the Lord” based on encounters with Jesus in the Gospel of Mark; andThy Kingdom Come” based on The Lord’s Prayer in the Gospel of Luke.

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