Service of Lighten-ing for Eastertide a Reverse Tenebrae

On Maundy Thursday evening each year many churches have a service of Tenebrae –

Many thanks to John Stuart for this freely shared image

which is the Latin word for “shadows.” There is a series of six to eight readings and, after each one, a candle is extinguished, leaving us more in the dark as we remember Jesus arrest, trial and crucifixion. For a worship service sometime after Easter (or after Pentecost) this service of lighten-ing or “reverse tenebrae” lifts up the theme of testimony / witnessing to faith. It is the length of a sermon but also includes seated musical verses — the worship leader will want to choose these. I actually begin my script with my words of introduction to the eight laypeople who volunteer to express these parts. It is reader’s theatre and does not need memorization.

Thanks so much for being a part of our reverse tenebrae. You’ll want to read all the parts and then practice your own a couple times. The tone of the piece is intended to be wryly humorous, as the characters recognize things about themselves. (The first character, Cleopas, remarks – “miserable Romans – wouldn’t know a holy man if they tripped over him” but he walked all the way to Emmaus oblivious to Jesus’ identity.)

Each person stands, reads and then lights a candle. The reading works from the outside to the inside. After every pair of readers there is a hymn sung from the bulletin. You do not need to have a hymnal. We will have a rehearsal …

Cleopas, Ananias, Philip, Eunice Rufus, Paul, Lydia, Tabitha

Cleopas speaks …

Before Pentecost? I go further back that that. I heard Jesus preach in the Emmaus area – I even went over to Bethany. In fact, I was there when … well, you know, when Lazarus … wasn’t dead anymore. It was incredible, though I think Jesus did it because he was just as afraid as everyone else of Martha. I wouldn’t come late for her invitation!

I wasn’t important in the ministry – one of the Seventy, sure, and did a little teaching of the simpler concepts. Still Samuel and I went to see his close friends in Jerusalem to tell them how sorry we were.

We were coming back from the condolence visit and scratching our heads a little at the wild story Mary told about Jesus’ tomb being empty, when we met this traveler who started walking with us. He was clueless about what had happened over Passover and we told him about Jesus – how amazing he was and what a tragedy that his ministry was cut short. Miserable Romans – wouldn’t know a holy man if they tripped over him!

This traveler started with the old prophets and Moses and explained how the Messiah had to suffer before there could be any glory. And while he was talking, I felt this strange glowing in my heart.

Well, we got to Emmaus town-limits at nightfall and the traveler looked like he was going further, so we convinced him to stay for dinner. Now, this is the really remarkable part of my testimony … when we asked him to say the blessing and break the bread, we suddenly knew the man Samuel and I met on the road … was Jesus himself.

Pamphylian? People are always asking. No, not a word now — just that one time.

A candle is lit.

Tabitha speaks …

No, can’t say I ever encountered the wandering rabbi from Nazareth. To be honest, if he had come to Joppa, I probably would have been too busy to notice. I’m Tabitha. The Greeks call me Dorcas – but the fact is that everyone is always calling me. And calling me. And calling me!

I was the kind of person who needed to say, “yes,” to everyone. I made clothes. I served meals. I took care of children. I went to sick beds. I stayed up and talked with women who had lost their husbands, and women who wished their husbands would get lost. I was wearing myself out helping people.

I was always tired, you know. But I was particularly tired for several days. Kind of nauseous. Pain right under my chin. But, of course, I kept right on going! They said it was my heart that gave out.

I know you are curious about the next part, but I’m not really allowed to describe anything. You can listen to my testimony, but you have to take that journey alone. Still I can say that I won’t be sorry when the time comes for me again.

And I can tell you what happened back in Joppa. All those folks I was always helping suddenly had a chance to help me. In a strange way maybe that’s the best thing I ever did for them. They washed me so tenderly, cleaned up my room, laid me in my bed, and they went and dragged old Peter himself out of Simon the Tanner’s house and showed him all the clothes I had made, and told him all about me. They asked him, like they expected him to do it – to bring me back to life.

Eye witness testimony to Jesus? What do you mean by that exactly?

A candle is lit.
A song is sung.

Ananias speaks …

When God gives you a vision with Jesus in it – well, of course it is comforting, supportive, beautiful, inspiring – Right?


Here’s my testimony, well, my story, anyway. I get nervous about anything that sounds legalese. In Damascus, where I live, we heard about the Jerusalem persecution, headed up by this vindictive Pharisee Saul of Tarsus who volunteered to hold the coats of people who stoned Stephen to death. Now a sweeter deacon than Stephen you couldn’t find – I understand he even forgave his killer — but talk about tactless and risky behavior. I could give him lessons in how to be somewhere else when trouble begins. It’s a highly prized talent in this Rome-ridden world.

Paul wasn’t a Roman – he was a monster – he went looking for opportunities to kill Christians – Jews like himself. We heard that he was coming here, authorized to drag us out of our synagogues and bring us to Jerusalem for what could only loosely be called “questioning.” But there was some kind of accident on the road to Damascus. When Saul got here, he went into seclusion on Straight Street and the gossip was he couldn’t see.

That’s when I had my vision. Did Jesus say, “I have rescued you,” or “keep the faith?” Wrong again. No, Jesus told me – “Ananias – to go to Straight Street and lay your healing hands (oh, did I tell you that’s my gift?) on Saul’s eyes.”

I objected right away. It’s been a while since Pentecost and we’ve been using the Holy Spirit as a search engine for quite a while. Jesus is out of touch — maybe he didn’t know what Saul was like, but he said. “Go. He is an instrument to bring my name before Gentiles, kings and the people of Israel and he will suffer in my name.”

OK So I went. But I made it quick. In the door, hand on his face, and “Brother Saul … (that stuck in my throat!) …the Lord Jesus who appeared to you has sent me so you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit!”

Out of there! Reports that my wife makes the sturdiest baskets in all of Damascus are greatly exaggerated.

A candle is lit.

Lydia speaks …

I have a big house and a lucrative business—monopoly, in fact. I’m from Thyatira – the only place you can get truly purple dye for fabric. I have a Philippian clientele of Roman military wives, Greek scholars and wealthy local citizens who want to impress someone. Just a little purple changes the way people look at you.

I’m Greek, but I was learning about the God of Israel. We had a group of women – Greek and Jewish both – who met by the river to pray every Sabbath day. Somehow, when we were praying, all the distinctions seemed to drop away.

One Sabbath Paul and Silas came and told stories about Jesus of Nazareth. Talk about not a top-drawer Savior! But it was enough for me – I met Jesus in the words of a couple guys who hadn’t even known him themselves. It’s a come-down – second-hand of second-hand.

It had to be Jesus opened my heart – otherwise can you imagine me hearing that lilies of the field fashion statement and getting baptized?

My house? Oh, that was nothing. I opened it up to be the church in Philippi. You want to know how I felt about Paul and Silas being arrested? Hey, my house is the church even when it gets dangerous. That’s my testimony! Folks are welcome right out of jail!

Paul? He was beyond makeover. But Silas now! I whipped him up a cloak – color somewhere between plum and eggplant … gorgeous!

A candle is lit.
A song is sung.

Philip speaks

People are different. Their testimonies are different. The way you light a candle in the heart is different for everyone. That’s what I got out of Pentecost. It wasn’t like I “learned” Libyan – I “learned” flexible.

In Samaria people believed me when I preached a sermon followed by a miracle to underline my point. Of course, that technique got me in trouble when Simon the local magician believed the miracles so much he offered a good price for extra hocus pocus.

On the Gaza Road I met a eunuch – the Treasurer of the Queen of the Ethiopians. Now he was half-way to Jesus by himself, reading the really old, yes, testimony, of the prophet Isaiah. I sprinted alongside the chariot, jumped up and explained that Jesus was the fulfillment of Isaiah. Then we stopped the chariot and we both got into a river and I baptized him then and there.

Then I vanished! That’s me – Philip – here and gone – word and water – good news testimony for anybody, everybody … anytime! Get out from under those bushel baskets!

A candle is lit.

Paul speaks …

You’ve got my letters. I can’t add much here. Yes, Philip, it is different for every church, every person … and it doesn’t matter who plants, who waters, because (as I have said so eloquently elsewhere) it’s God who gives the growth.

Funny thing. I missed the big stuff – the Galilean ministry, the cross and the empty tomb, Pentecost. Jesus met me last (well, later than most) on the Damascus Road. It was clear and bright and it stopped me cold.

But it isn’t like that for everyone. I remember Athens. On the Areopagus I had to argue with Stoics and Epicureans. Though I had used my personal story many times, the testimony they needed was different – a logical explanation, a metaphor for their context. I looked around and saw a statue “to the unknown God.” I used it to try to explain.

Everyone’s aching for God … even the really … cerebral folks … well, like me. Everyone’s aching for God. Everyone.

Sometimes I just try to lean into a better way – no preaching, miracles, tongues, collections … or even letters – I help someone meet the unknown God through … love.

A candle is lit.
A song is sung.

Eunice speaks …

My mother was the first person in the family to meet Jesus – I don’t mean she literally met him before the resurrection, or after the resurrection, or even was there at Pentecost. What I mean is … meeting her everyone gets the idea that Jesus is really alive. She believes it and so do you. She’s a little old Greek lady named Lois and she convinces everyone, even me – her daughter.

And I passed the tradition to my son Timothy – a good tradition, a tradition for Jews and
Gentiles which is how he must live, a reasonable tradition that offers respect to women, that knits together rich and poor, that speaks through simple things – parables — that everyone can understand, regardless of their education. It is a sound religion in an era of shifting values.

But Timothy lit on fire with it! His faith became his everything and he turned, in addition to us, to another parent, Paul of Tarsus, for guidance. Timothy left the safety of home to travel for Jesus. His testimony was his own.

Can a mother learn from her child? Adults learn from kids? listen to them? Can the first be last, the mustardseed grow great? My answer is absolutely … “yes.”

A candle is lit.

Rufus speaks …

Libyan? That is my language. My Dad’s name is Simon and we come from Cyrene. He exports silphium for medicine and comes to Jerusalem to trade but also for Passover. There is a Cyrenian synagogue in Jerusalem. It was the year my father let my brother Alexander and me come with him. There were thousands of festival-goers in the city. My father was a little uncomfortable with the crowd and wanted to get us to the other side of the road, to the inn where we were staying but we were blocked by one of those horrible Roman processions with criminals on their way to the place of the Skull to die. The soldiers parade them down the main street as a good example to citizens not to get into trouble. I can hear my Dad now, “Don’t get involved.”

Alex and my eyes were eyes big as flat cakes — seriously, a Jerusalem weekend and an execution. Our parents in a normal situation would have made sure we were just as far away from as possible.

There were three men in the death march and the one in the middle was obviously faint. He fell down from the weight of the cross piece. For a couple minutes he lay there in the dirt with the huge wooden beam on top of him. Then the soldiers pulled the cross off and jerked my Dad out of the crowd. He had each one of us by the hands. We had to let go, but a nice lady put her arms around our shoulders. We thought she was dressed very fancy for the daytime and had all this makeup that was running down her face.

I’m involved in the church now, the one in Africa. I often tell this story it is my favorite testimony … how my Dad carried the cross … all the way to Calvary.

A candle is lit.

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The way of the cross leads home — guest post from Ken Sehested

I can never too often encourage folks to connect with Ken Sehested’s site, where justice oriented worship resources and reflections are posted every week of the year. You would also love his books In the Land of the Living and In the Land of the Willing. Earth Day resources can be found here. This is his simple Easter benediction, reminding us all to hold Easter close — not one day but all the year long.

May Easter’s affection
spawn many children
who know
despite the trouble
the toil
the rubble strewn soil
the way of the cross leads home.

Ken Sehested
Easter 2016

Photo: baptism at Marion Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison for men, Chaplain Nancy Hastings Sehested

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Two post-Easter hymns — new words to familiar tunes

I Come to the Garden Alone
(I think you know the tune)
I come to the garden alone
to taste religion quite slowly –
but the risen hope has a broader scope
and I find the whole world ho-ly.

For the truth we face has a common grace –
Not a solo but a chorale –
and the love is wide that is multiplied
by a Savior who walks with us all.

The garden invites us to share
all our fear, doubt, failure, addiction,
and we still old shame when we speak its name,
and find new benediction. Refrain

The hymn of the garden’s still true
and its third verse send us to mission,
for it bids us go to each place of woe
and needs no new edi-tion. Refrain

Now the Peace of Easter
(Now the Green Blade Rises)
Now our words are spoken, now our trust is born.
Energies are rising – we prepare to learn.
We pass our peace and share our neighbors’ need
and the holy Gardener gives us shoot and seed.

Green comes up in churches – care for earth and air,
stewardship of resource — renewal and repair.
Damage is done that makes creation weep —
Easter opens graves of all that is buried deep.

Now the peace of Easter rests on each one here,
rising like the morning, falling like the tear.
Raised from the dead – Christ love for us is seen –
Easter comes again like wheat arising green.

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Prayer for an illumination of the harrowing

God, I can just see them there
listening to Jesus preach
that mighty Saturday sermon –
Sarah and Hagar leaning in to each other
on a dusty old pew.
Ruth is hand in hand with both
Boaz and Mahlon,
like children at a sunday school picnic,
but she has eyes only for Naomi.

Absalom with his amazing hair,
untangled from the oak tree,
desalinated Lot’s wife, Ham, Bilhah,
Rahab with her red cord,
Cyrus of Persia,
and a prostitute’s baby whose true home
was Solomon’s judgment call —

they are next to John the Baptist,
who hasn’t been gone that long.

We see David and Jonathan,
Elijah reunited with the widow
he liked so well,
Saul, Samuel and the witch,
an eternal triangle,
Miriam and Moses’ wife, not quite BFFs —
but no room for prejudice in hell.

Most of them have names
we do not know and never will –
but they were some daddy’s baby,
some grandma’s pride —
best at the hundred yard dash
through the Red Sea,
singing psalms, stamping grapes,
playing whales-and-jonahs
till they were called in
for a bedtime story of long ago.

They are all listening
like the people we love who have died,
hearts hanging on his every word,
like their death depends on it.

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Prayer before reading Matthew 27: 15-23

God, I am not sure about the theology of
“Jesus died for my sins,”
but I do know that
Jesus died for Barabbas,
putting a terrorist back on the streets.

Let me hear the story of this Friday,
without trying to put on the handcuffs
of my interpretation.

People are notoriously bad
at choosing what love is going to mean.

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And Peter (guest post)

I posted yesterday about Peter’s denial of Jesus and Stephen Price offered the following comment:

And you’ve reminded me of my job to tell the congregation. That the 1st resurrection that day was Jesus’, but the second was Peter’s. That part of the good news about Jesus defeating Death is that the deaths in our lives can be overcome as well.

And he wrote this poem:

Go tell His disciples…
and Peter…
Peter, whose heart
choked to death on his shame
when he heard the rooster crow.

whose shame was public
like a politician caught
with an underaged hooker
the day after speaking at a Graham rally.

who had written himself out if the story,
found Jesus writing him back in.
The first resurrection that morning
was Jesus
but Jesus made sure
that the second resurrection
was Peter.

So I shouldn’t have to tell you,
but I will,
Just to make the point
like it was made that morning
that when Jesus says “tell them”
this morning
He means “tell them…and you”

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Prayer before tenebrae

God, I found a bullet in the playground –
not a casing, a bullet.

Here we are –
contemporary Gethsemane
with swings and climbing structure,
a child of God at risk,
people who should care
sound asleep.

There are still betrayers
who use kisses,
people who will say
they are following orders,

and someone who always thinks
life is safer with a weapon.

I act it out for them
in a ritual of candle and shadow,
in an old story remembered
and new again.

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