A Poem for Holy Week
by Tom Robb


I.           Good Friday; Lent is all but finished.
             I am, curiously, uninvolved – no emotional
             Connection.   What meaning has it this year?
             I look around, distracted, barely attentive.
             My wife sits beside me, eyes closed, praying.
             No prayerful sorrow wells up within me – nothing.
             Relentlessly banal, I spiral inward – tirelessly
             Self-absorbed – an itch here, a stray thought there.

II.          The choir begins its haunted chant,
            The stunned numbness of the inconsolable,
            Trying to remember the face, the voice.
            Trying to go on in spite of regrets
                               and lost chances.

            Now go through the motions.
            Now be obedient
                               for a while.

            The singing, a wounding dirge,
            The readings, tragic.
            The sermon, yawing away
                         From the expected,
            Dares us to see,
            Forces us to feel the terrible,
            The monstrous things
                               we have done.

            In the darkening gloom
            We sit Shiva for our friend,
            Our brother Jesus
            Whom we have rejected,
            Driven out from us,

            So this is the end.
            Another holiest season finished.
            Good Friday,
            A tender astonishing

© 2013 Thomas Robb

Tenebrae "hearse" (candelabrum) used during Holy Week, Mainz Cathedral
Tenebrae “hearse” (candelabrum) used during Holy Week, Mainz Cathedral

I’m grateful to Tom Robb for introducing me in this poem to the Tenebrae liturgy, an ancient service for the last three days of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. (More about Holy Week here.)

According to the Wikipedia entry for Tenebrae, the service has variations depending on which day it is held. Tom attended a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. In email to me, he said the liturgy included a sermon that gave a blow-by-blow, forensic re-telling of the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ. Tom described his experience at the service like this:

“The church darkened gradually as the readings and chanting went on.  The altar was stripped.   When the Passion story reached ‘It is finished’ and the lights were completely out, it was quiet for what seemed like a few minutes.  Then a rather loud startling tympani drum roll symbolizing the rending of the Temple curtain, and it was over.
“The horrible forensic business made the whole thing anything but abstract or metaphor.  Grace seems to be anything but free.  It had – has – a cost.”

I love the intimacy of Tom’s poem. I’m with him in the pew, “distracted, barely attentive.” And I appreciate the description of a liturgy that is actually alive — that moves the poet (and me) from ordinary human muddle into a state of grace, a place of mercy. It takes me back to these lines from the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “Against you only have I sinned … a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Ps. 51:4a, 18b

So I am grateful to Tom’s poem for the invitation to sit Shiva for Jesus with him and the others. In that circle, I’m reminded again that I am only human, that my choices have consequences, and that — thank God — Love conquers all.

Blessings on all your paths,


(Candelabrum image courtesy Bhuck)

2 thoughts on “Tenebrae

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  1. I am very happy to be able to learn more about the Easter season on these posts and I am very moved by the richness of the insightful poetry. Margaret, your writings, commentary and Biblical texts are an inspiration. Thank you so very much. Sharon Robinson


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