Photo by April Sachs on July 20, 2022 during her year of taking sunrise photos each morning
The darkest hour is always before dawn. ~ English Proverb
I was reminded of the truth of this proverb on Easter weekend. Friday evening David and I attended the Tennebrae Service at our church (Park View Mennonite Church). Our bulletin had a beautiful description of what a Tennebrae service is:
“Tennebrae means darkness. […] We do not often attend to the shadow side of faith… Hearing the story of Jesus’ passion unmasks any illusion we might have that following in Jesus’ footsteps guarantees a life of consistent sunshine and happiness. We face the shadows, but we don’t dwell there forever. Easter is coming. Yet without death, there is no resurrection. Without the night we cannot greet the morning. This service is necessary to prepare for the great celebration of Easter.”
I found this service to be deeply meaningful. This was not the first Tennebrae Service I’ve attended, but it was the first since the onset of the pandemic.
Five readers took turns reading various pieces of the passion story from the Gospel of John. At intervals, one of thirteen candles was extinguished. With each candle, an overhead light was also extinguished, and we sang “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord have Mercy”). At the point in the story of Jesus’ death, the last light and the Christ candle were extinguished and a gong sounded. When the gong’s reverberations slowly dissipated, the darkness and silence were profound. I felt as though I was in Gethsemane with Jesus in his dark hour. We sat in silence as the readers stripped the sanctuary of all the Advent decorations and draped a black cloth over the wooden cross. When the lights on the back wall were turned on low, revealing the bare sanctuary, everyone left in silence.
Saturday night I attended the Easter Vigil shared with another local congregation, Community Mennonite Church. It started out like a continuation of the Tennebrae Service from Friday night with low lights and each of us holding a candle. There were four parts to the service. At the end of the celebrations of Light, Word, Water, and Bread and Cup, we sat in silent vigil as several from the two congregations spread the Lord’s Table and brought in vases of blooms and greens. When the bell tolled to mark the midnight hour, our silent darkness was broken with light, sound, and color to celebrate the risen Christ. The Christ candle was relit, there was an Organ Prelude, and the Sanctuary had radiant bursts of color from the blooms that had been gathered and arranged by various members of the congregations. It was a feast of beauty in sight and sound!
Easter morning David and I attended the community breakfast in which people brought breads and fruits to share, and then there was the service to celebrate Christ and New Life! This was the first time the congregation celebrated in person since the year before the onset of the pandemic. One of my favorite parts of the Easter Service in our church is when the congregation ends by singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. We are blessed with a host of gifted singers and musicians in our congregation, and this year especially, they raised the roof of the church with their singing. It was so beautiful, it gave me goose bumps. What a way to conclude the Easter celebrations!
I find it meaningful to hear the passion story every year because in it both Jesus’ humanity and his divinity are exposed. Even in his darkest hour, he did not forsake his reason for being on this earth. He stayed true to it, even unto death. Most of us will do what we can to avoid struggles and suffering, even if that means giving up an essential part of who we are. Yet it is after we go through our struggles (not around, over, or under, but through) that we know the most joy and gratitude.
Friday night I contemplated my own darkest hour. I can still pinpoint how old I was, and where it happened. Things have never looked so bleak for me as that moment when I was twenty years old and I received word that my mother had turned down an offer for help from the county social workers for the second time that would have addressed the problem of violence in the family. I felt trapped, with no way out of my unbearable life. Not long after that, I found myself sitting in the darkness of my father’s woods late in the night, planning my getaway.
My triumph came when I stepped onto a train with a one-way ticket in hand, bound for Port Kent, New York and again two mornings later when I looked out over Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont for the very first time. I had longed to see Vermont, the land of my dreams, ever since I was in grade school and saw pictures of Vermont in my geography books in school. I’ve experienced other dark hours followed by other bright days, but none so formative as just before and right after I left home.
Today I rejoice in the renewal of the earth with Spring here to stay (it seems). Today was a perfect spring day. I had the windows open to breathe in the fresh spring air, Our bluebirds have built their nest and laid at least one egg, the robins were out there chasing one another around in their mating rituals, and the tree swallows were mating on the wing. Blooms are bursting forth from the ground, from bushes, and from trees. I feel my heart filled with gratitude and hope as the Earth renews itself once again.
May we remember in the darkest part of the night that a new day will dawn. Hallelujah!
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