Joshua Williams, a server at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, extinguishes a candle March 31 during Tenebrae, a Holy Week rite. By the end of the prayers and songs, only a single candle remained, a sign of Christ’s Resurrection. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Joshua Williams, a server at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, extinguishes a candle March 31 during Tenebrae, a Holy Week rite. By the end of the prayers and songs, only a single candle remained, a sign of Christ’s Resurrection. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Northwest Portland on March 31 held an ancient Holy Week rite with chanted psalms, readings from Scripture, words of the saints and even a brief simulated earthquake.

Tenebrae, Latin for “darkness,” was common for centuries during the evenings of Holy Week until reforms in the mid-1950s. It combines psalms and readings from the Liturgy of the Hours. As each selection is read or sung, a candle is extinguished until a single light remains.

That, too, is taken away as the church erupts into “strepitus,” or great noise, usually achieved by worshippers striking the pews or slamming books. The din symbolizes the earthquake that followed the death of Jesus. Following the noise, the single candle is returned, a sign of Christ’s Resurrection.

Joe Hoffman of Beaverton strikes a pew March 31 at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception as worshippers made noise to simulate the earthquake that came at the death of Jesus. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

Archbishop Alexander Sample learned about Tenebrae at a parish in Minnesota before he entered seminary. He and Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, rector of the cathedral, chanted the opening and closing lamentations from the prophet Jeremiah in Latin. Between, the congregation sang psalms in English, led by Angela Westhoff-Johnson, longtime cathedral music director. Selections included Psalm 51, which implores, “My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart.”

Long practiced at Holy Rosary Parish in Portland, Tenebrae is returning to some local parishes though it is not an official part of the Holy Week celebrations.