Some Tenebrae Musings

As the time for Tenebrae (Latin “darkness”) services has come again, one thinks of the shrinking circle of light in the Passion narrative of John’s Gospel.

In John 12, Jesus holds forth to Passover crowds: “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” He sheds his light on all Israel, but then…

“After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.”

How awful. The Light of the World departed. Deliberately. Leaving them to their own choices, their own judgment: “Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?'”


The pool of light then shrinks drastically as, in John 13, it extends only within the Upper Room at the Last Supper. It shrinks still further in that chapter, as one disciple goes out into the night to perform his dark act of betrayal.

Finally, in chapter 17, the light shrinks to a single spotlight at centre stage, as Jesus prays to his Father on behalf of his own.

That narrow light will stay on Jesus until it is extinguished on the Cross.

Tenebrae today, Wednesday, anticipates Maundy Thursday. And that New Mandate, the New Commandment, is at the heart of John’s rendition of the Last Supper.

That Supper begins with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, setting them a shocking, indelible example of mutual service. That Supper ends with Jesus’s “high priestly prayer” that the disciples remain faithful to the mission and remain one in fellowship.

The foot-washing service at the start of the Supper is the foundation for the prayer at the end of it: Only if the disciples are willing to serve each other in the humblest way will they stay on message and stick together. If they become too stiff-necked to bend over and wash another’s feet, they will fall away from their mission and from each other, no longer Christ-centred, no longer Christ-like, no longer Christian.

Instead, Jesus commands them to love each other—not just “as you love yourself,” a standard already too high—but “as I have loved you,” a patently impossible standard. But that is the model of the Master to be emulated by the disciples, and only the giving of the Holy Spirit will allow them even to approximate it.

And approximate it they had better, for only if they love each other conspicuously as Jesus loved them will “everyone know that you are my disciples” (13:35)—that is, will see in them the reality of the Gospel of Jesus they are charged to preach.

Mission and fellowship: Jesus’s last prayer for his own. The circle of his teaching and example has shrunk to this bright core.