The Wrath of the Lamb: A Tenebrae Service

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By Rev. Cindy de Jong with a sermon by Dr. Cornelius Plantinga adapted for our current circumstances from Reformed Worship

This service is modeled after the Tenebrae service that for many years was held on Good Friday at Calvin University. A longer introduction can be found here.

The service of Tenebrae, meaning “darkness” or “shadows,” has been practiced by the church since medieval times. Once a service for the monastic community, Tenebrae later became an important part of the worship of the medieval common folk during Holy Week. Today we join Christians of many generations throughout the world in using the liturgy of Tenebrae.

This Tenebrae liturgy is a prolonged meditation on Christ’s suffering. Readings trace the story of Christ’s passion, music portrays his pathos, and the power of silence and darkness suggests the drama of this momentous day. It offers us the opportunity to ponder the depth of Christ’s suffering through mounting darkness; through the return of the small but persistent flame of the Christ candle at the conclusion of the service. 

For this time of worship find 6 candles (any color or size will work) and a 7th candle that is larger to symbolize Christ (usually white but again any will do). You can have the candles lit as you begin your worship or light all seven candles as you begin “The Service of Shadows”. Following each reading snuff out one candle. 

After the final reading—about Jesus’ burial—the final candle, symbolizing Christ isn’t snuffed out but rather removed from the room you are worshiping in.  Bring the Christ candle back into the worship gathering before singing the final stanza of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”. With the Christ candle restored we anticipate Christ’s resurrection, and receive his blessing.

If you are worshiping with a group of people invite one person to read the portions in the normal font and have everyone read the text in bold. If you are worshiping without the physical presence of other people, know you are not worshiping alone, but that your voice is joining those of Christians across the globe who are using the same or similar words.  

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THE APPROACH TO GOD

Greeting

The light has come into the world,

and the world loved darkness rather than light.

God sent the Son into the world,

not to condemn the world,

but that the world might be saved through him.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them unto the Lord.

Hymn: “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High” LUYH 111, PsH 364 | Text and Music | YouTube

1 O love, how deep, how broad, how high,

beyond all thought and fantasy,

that God, the Son of God, should take

our mortal form for mortals’ sake!

2 For us baptized, for us he bore

his holy fast and hungered sore;d

for us temptation sharp he knew,

for us the tempter overthrew.

3 For us he prayed; for us he taught;

for us his daily works he wrought:

by words and signs and actions thus

still seeking not himself, but us.

4 For us to evil power betrayed,

scourged, mocked, in purple robe arrayed,

he bore the shameful cross and death;

for us gave up his dying breath.

5 For us he rose from death again;

for us he went on high to reign;

for us he sent his Spirit here

to guide, to strengthen, and to cheer.

—Latin, 15th c., English tr. Benjamin Webb

Opening Prayer

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Let us pray: 

Most gracious God,

look with mercy upon your gathered children

for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed,

given into sinful hands,

and suffered death upon the cross.

Strengthen our faith and forgive our betrayals

as we enter the way of his passion;

through him who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.

Choral Anthem: “Ex Ore Innocentium” John Ireland | YouTube

It is a thing most wonderful,

Almost too wonderful to be,

That God’s own Son should come from heav’n,

And die to save a child like me.

And yet I know that it is true:

He chose a poor and humble lot,

And wept, and toiled, and mourned, and died,

For love of those who loved him not.

I sometimes think about the Cross,

And shut my eyes, and try to see

The cruel nails and crown of thorns,

And Jesus crucified for me.

But even I could see him die,

I should but see a little part

Of that great love, which, like a fire,

Is always burning in his heart.

And yet I want to love thee, Lord;

O light the flame within my heart,

And I will love thee more and more,

Until I see thee as thou art.

—Text by William W. How

THE SERVICE OF THE WORD

Scripture: Revelation 6:12-17

Meditation: “The Wrath of the Lamb” 

Imagine that you and some friends are chatting one afternoon in your home neighborhood when suddenly you hear the screech of rubber on pavement and then the shouts of children. You hustle outdoors and find a golden cocker spaniel in the street, terribly run over. Its back has been crushed, and now it’s screaming in a way you will never forget. Somebody mentions that the dog is the gentle house pet of some children in a neighborhood family. And, sure enough, as you watch, a little girl of about six runs to the scene. She kneels in the street and tries to comfort her pet by placing her hand on its head. You are not ready for what happens next. What happens is that the cocker twists around and, for the first time in its life, it tries to bite right through that little girl’s hand.

It’s a chilling thing for you to see. You get the impression that a creature in death throes, hurt beyond all endurance, has changed into a different thing. It’s become a wild-eyed creature who snaps at any attempt to comfort it. This creature wants to suffer its death alone.

The power of evil to cause frightening personality change is something we rarely see. Most of us live too far from the borders of human life. We live too far from the places where the changes might happen. We need a seer like John to tell us about them.

And so he does, but with an art and an urgency we might not notice at once. A chapter earlier John presents almost opposite animal images of Jesus Christ. In chapter 5:5 John sees “the lion of the Tribe of Judah.” This lion looks like Aslan. He looks like a royal conqueror. But (v. 6) “then I saw a lamb, looking as if it had been slaughtered” (literally, “looking as if its throat had been slit”). Jesus is a lion; then suddenly he’s a lamb.

Now in chapter 6 John blends these images into a jarring picture. In chapter 6 evildoers call to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb!”

Jesus Christ becomes a roaring lamb from whom people shrink. Who could stand before the wrath of a lamb?

In this horrifying image, John shows what we have done to God the Son. Because of the suffering we have inflicted, he’s different now. He’s like somebody who stumbles out of a concentration camp. It’s as if some wire has gotten crossed in him. Some terrifying personality change has come over him. Powerful human evildoers have turned God the Son from a mute victim into an almost mutant victor.

Think it over. Suppose you were confronted by a furious lamb. You wouldn’t be puzzled. You’d be terrified. How has creation gotten bent so far out of shape that something like this is possible?

In creation and even in God, as G. K. Chesterton once said, wrath can be frightening and unpredictable. It’s as if bursts of wrath, “like storms above the atmosphere, don’t break out exactly where we expect them, but follow some higher weather-chart of their own.”

Good Friday is a day for reading the chart. Yes, it’s a day for reading the love of God, and I hope you feel this love clear down to your arteries and innards. But Good Friday is also a day to sense the wrath of God. On Good Friday we see how human evil pushes creation out of joint and how it pushes even God to his limit.

Think of the cry of dereliction. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There’s astonishment here, suggesting that the dying Jesus never saw this coming. There’s despair here and maybe a note of accusation.

What’s chilling is that our Lord is grotesquely out of character. Goodness has been overruled. Evil is across the border. All the walls are down. Human sin and the terrible suffering that comes from it—these things cause Jesus to roar from the cross. It’s as chilling as if our parents were tortured before our eyes and we heard sounds coming from them that we had never heard before.

And now, says John in our text, all those who have hurt Jesus Christ will have to face Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, at the end of human history, sinners shall have to face the wrath of the lamb. King Herod’s intended victim way back at the beginning—the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay—is coming back as a deadly apocalyptic foe, hair white as snow, eyes like blazing fire. He’s coming back to judge the living and the dead.

Revelation 6 is a passage that is meant to scare us. Of course we are Easter people, and we look at Good Friday from an Easter position. It’s like watching a tape of your team’s championship game when you already know they have won.

Still, one of our proper moods on Good Friday is fear. And the reason is that fearful things happen that day. The earth quakes and the temple curtain rips and the sky darkens. All this quaking and ripping and darkening tell us that evil is having its way with goodness. But the signs also tell us that God is doing some shaking of the heavens and earth, shaking out the debris in a fallen creation and ripping the disguises from the powers and principalities. God is ripping the disguises even from people like us.

The poured out wrath of God and the pent-up wrath of the Lamb—such wrath isn’t just some Bible picture for naive people. God’s wrath is very real and very frightening. Wrath is love offended. It’s the awesome, straining fury of God who hates sin like sin and who terrifyingly changes personality in the battle to overcome it. Good Friday is in fact the trial run of judgment day, and I wonder how much it matters to us.

After all, many of us are a comfortable, friendly, middle-class people, and we’d like a religion to fit. A comfortable, friendly, middle-class religion—that’s all we want. And if we happen to wreck somebody else’s life because of the way we vote, or how we run our friendships, or because we choose to drive drunk; if we happen to wreck somebody else’s life because of our lust or our pride or our sheer lazy indifference, why, we never intended it. We never intended any of it. We had only wanted to be comfortable. All we wanted was to set our agenda, and then in our hymns and prayers bring in Jesus Christ to bless our agenda.

But all this is doomed. Judgment day is coming. “[Evildoers] call to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’”

Nobody. Nobody can stand. Certainly none of us. We can’t stand. All we can do is to get on our knees, confess our sin, humbly seek the forgiveness of God, and focus our faith like a laser on the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

You see, the Lamb of God has two faces. One is the face of wrath, a sight that “ought to make our blood run cold,” as C. S. Lewis once put it. The other is the face of suffering love, the face of one who has had his throat slit for the sins of his sorry people. One face or the other is turned toward you and me this very day, this very hour. As the darkness falls from noon till three, which face shall we see?

—Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. 

THE SERVICE OF SHADOWS

The Shadow of Betrayal

Reading: Luke 22:1-6

Moment of reflection while the candle is snuffed out. 

Response: “Ah, Holy Jesus” LUYH 172, PsH 386 | Text and Music | YouTube

1 Ah, holy Jesus,

how have you offended,

that mortal judgment

has on you descended?

By foes derided,

by your own rejected,

O most afflicted!

2 Who was the guilty?

Who brought this upon you?

It is my treason,

Lord, that has undone you.

'Twas I, Lord Jesus,

I it was denied you;

I crucified you.

3 For me, dear Jesus,

was your incarnation,

your mortal sorrow,

and your life's oblation;

your death of anguish

and your bitter passion,

for my salvation.

4 Therefore, dear Jesus,

since I cannot pay you,

I do adore you and will ever pray you,

think on your pity

and your love unswerving,

not my deserving.

—Johann Heerman, P.D.

The Shadow of the Agony of the Spirit

Reading: Matthew 26:36-44

Moment of reflection while the candle is snuffed out. 

Choral Response: “Hear My Prayer” Henry Purcell | YouTube

The Shadow of Arrest
Reading: Mark 14:43-49

Moment of reflection while the candle is snuffed out. 
Response: "Go to Dark Gethsemane" LUYH 161, PsH 381| Text and Music | YouTube

1 Go to dark Gethsemane,

all who feel the tempter’s power;

your Redeemer’s conflict see,

watch with him one bitter hour:

turn not from his griefs away –

teach us, Lord, how we should pray.

2 Follow to the judgment hall,

view the Lord of life arraigned.

Oh, the wormwood and the gall!

Oh, the pangs his soul sustained!

Shun not suffering, shame, or loss –

help us, Lord, to bear our cross.

3 Calvary’s mournful mountain climb;

there, adoring at his feet,

mark the miracle of time,

God’s own sacrifice complete:

“It is finished!” hear him cry –

save us, Lord, when death draws nigh.

4 Early hasten to the tomb

where they laid his breathless clay:

all is solitude and gloom.

Who has taken him away?

Christ is risen! He meets our eyes.

Savior, teach us so to rise.

—James Montgomery, P.D.

The Shadow of Desertion

Reading: Mark 14:50, 66-72

Moment of reflection while the candle is snuffed out. 

Response: “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” LUYH 168, PsH 383| Text and Music | YouTube

1 O sacred head, now wounded,

with grief and shame weighed down,

now scornfully surrounded

with thorns, your only crown.

O sacred head, what glory

and blessing you have known!

Yet, though despised and gory,

I claim you as my own.

2 My Lord, what you did suffer

was all for sinner's gain;

mine, mine was the transgression,

but yours the deadly pain.

So here I kneel, my Savior,

for I deserve your place;

look on me with thy favor

and save me by your grace.

3 What language shall I borrow

to thank you, dearest Friend,

for this, your dying sorrow,

your pity without end?

Lord, make me yours forever,

a loyal servant true,

and let me never, never

outlive my love to you.

—Latin, Medieval; English tr. James W. Alexander, P.D.

The Shadow of Accusation

Reading: Matthew 27:11-18, 21-26

Moment of reflection while the candle is snuffed out. 

Viola Response: “Meditation” Ernest Bloch | YouTube

The Shadow of Crucifixion & Humiliation

Reading: Matthew 27:27-37

Moment of reflection while the candle is snuffed out. 

Response: “Man of Sorrows—What a Name” LUYH 170,  PsH 482 | Text and Music | YouTube

1 Man of sorrows — what a name

for the Son of God, who came

ruined sinners to reclaim:

Hallelujah, what a Savior!

2 Bearing shame and scoffing rude,

in my place condemned he stood,

sealed my pardon with his blood:

Hallelujah, what a Savior!

3 Guilty, helpless, lost were we;

blameless Lamb of God was he,

sacrificed to set us free:

Hallelujah, what a Savior!

—Philip P. Bliss, P.D.

The Shadow of Death

Reading: Matthew 27:45-54

Moment of reflection 

Then, while removing the Christ candle from the room symbolize the sound of the earthquake and the tearing of the curtain by stomping on the floor or other hard object with growing intensity concluding as you begin to sing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”.

Response: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” st. 1-3, LUYH 175, PsH 384| Text and Music | YouTube

1 When I survey the wondrous cross

on which the Prince of glory died,

my richest gain I count but loss,

and pour contempt on all my pride.

2 Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,

save in the death of Christ, my God!

All the vain things that charm me most,

I sacrifice them through his blood.

3 See, from his head, his hands, his feet,

sorrow and love flow mingled down.

Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,

or thorns compose so rich a crown?

—Isaac Watts, P.D.

The Shadow of Burial

Reading: John 19:38-42

Response: “Were You There” LUYH 166, PsH 377,| Text and Music | YouTube or YouTube

Silent Reflection

The Christ Candle Is Restored

Hymn: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (st. 4) LUYH 175, PsH 384| Text and Music | YouTube

4 Were the whole realm of nature mine,

that were a present far too small.

Love so amazing, so divine,

demands my soul, my life, my all.

—Isaac Watts, P.D.

Receiving God’s Blessing

May Jesus Christ,

who for our sake became obedient unto death,

even death on a cross,

keep you and strengthen you.

Amen.

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 At First Montreal CRC, we have been holding Tenebrae services on Good Friday for AGES.  I don't even remember what Good Friday services were like BEFORE that.