The Wrath of the Lamb: A Tenebrae service

After hearing about the Good Friday Tenebrae service at Calvin College several times, I decided to go last year. Arriving shortly before the service was to begin, I was amazed to find every seat taken; more than twelve hundred students already filled the auditorium.

So this year I came earlier and was moved by the sight of students and faculty streaming in from all across the campus, quietly respecting the signs to “Please enter in silence.” When all the seats were taken, the aisles filled and many more stood for this most somber service of the year.

The service was moving in its beauty and simplicity. It was obviously planned with great care and attention to detail. I asked Cindy de Jong, Coordinator of Worship at Calvin College, to provide some background.


Notes on Preparing and Leading the Service

The Good Friday Tenebrae service has become an important tradition at Calvin College. We shorten our classes that day so that our community can gather for worship in the early afternoon before they go home for the Easter weekend.

Three or four students who serve as the planning team discuss the overall shape of the service and talk about how the sermon’s message will affect our choices of texts and music. We look for texts that tell the story of Good Friday in a concise and fairly dramatic way.

We use two readers, male and female, one student and one staff or faculty member. The readers rehearse about a week before the service so that they get a feel for the readings, which should be read with strong interpretative skills but not so much drama that they call attention to themselves and away from the text. The day before the service, we rehearse again, with microphones, in the worship space.

The planning team also helps with setting up the physical worship space for the service. We arrange the large cross, candles, and lecterns on the platform. We also set up the special lighting, which is progressively dimmed throughout the service, until we sit in utter darkness except for a purplish glow on the cross.

The students and staff enter the auditorium in silence. We sing and pray and hear a message, and then the service of shadows begins. This time of worship cannot be rushed. As we listen to the gospel story, it is important to give the people time to reflect on the event of Christ’s death on the cross.

Each reading in the service of shadows is followed by the snuffing of two candles by a student dancer. We use a dancer because she knows how to move gracefully and quietly through the space, not drawing attention to herself but leading the congregation to reflect on the extinguishing of the light. As she is blowing out the two candles, the overhead lights are also dimmed imperceptibly so that by the time of the last reading, the space is nearly dark, reminding us of the darkness that came over the earth as Jesus died.

The response to the readings and snuffing of light may be a congregational hymn, a choral anthem, an instrumental selection, or even a poem. All the hymns (with music) for this service are printed in the bulletin. The hymns are usually quite familiar; if we’ve chosen one that is less familiar, we might introduce it in a chapel service earlier in the week or use a soloist or the choir to sing a verse or two to introduce it. If the people must concentrate too hard on the music and words, they are less able to be reflective about the meaning. An instrumental solo usually follows one of the later readings; we try to choose one that is not based on a familiar hymn text so that no words will interfere with the people’s personal meditation at that point in the service.

After the final reading—about Jesus’ burial—the Christ candle is removed, the overhead lights are blackened, and there is a brief moment of silence. Then, out of the darkness, an unaccompanied soloist sings two verses of “Were You There.” This is followed by a longer time of silence that is very gradually broken by the strepitus, a loud sound signifying the tumult of the earth and the rending of the curtain at Christ’s death; this is accomplished by a mallet roll on a cymbal, beginning almost inaudibly, then increasing in intensity over nearly a full minute until the sound thunders off the walls and through everyone’s heads. Coming right out of this strepitus, the organ leads into the final hymn, usually the last verse of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The Christ candle is then restored as we anticipate Christ’s resurrection, and we silently leave with his blessing.


Organ Prelude: “O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ sunde gross” J. S. Bach

O people, lament your great sin,
for the sake of which Christ
left his Father’s bosom
and came to earth.
Of a pure, gentle virgin
Jesus was born for us;
he gave life to the dead and put aside all sickness
until the time arrived
that he should be sacrificed for us.
He bore the heavy burden of our sins
stretched out on the cross.


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”

stanzas 1-3 all, stanza 4 choir, stanza 5 all PsH 364, PH 83, RL 342-343, TH 155, TWC 193

Opening Prayer

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray: A brief silence.
Most gracious God,
look with mercy upon your children gathered here
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 (SA; Boosey & Hawkes)

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


Scripture: Revelation 6:12-17

Meditation: “The Wrath of the Lamb” (see p. 25)


The Shadow of Betrayal

Reading: Luke 22:1-6
Response: “Ah, Holy Jesus” PsH 386, PH 93, RL 285, TH 248, TWC 231

The Shadow of the Agony of the Spirit

Reading: Matthew 26:36-44
Choral Response: “Hear My Prayer” Will James (G. Schirmer)

The Shadow of Arrest

Reading: Mark 14:43-49
Response: “Go to Dark Gethsemane” PsH 381, PH 97, TWC 225

The Shadow of Desertion

Reading: Mark 14:50, 66-72
Response: “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” PsH 383, PH 98, RL 300, PH 247, TWC 221

The Shadow of Accusation

Reading: Matthew 27:11-18, 21-26
Viola Response: “Meditation” Ernest Bloch

The Shadow of Crucifixion & Humiliation

Reading: Matthew 27:27-37
Response: “See Christ Was Wounded for Our Sake”
stanzas 1-2 choir, stanzas 3-5 all PsH 196

The Shadow of Death

Reading: Matthew 27:45-54
Response: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”
st. 1-3 PsH 384, PH 213, RL 292-293, TH 252, TWC 213
The Christ Candle Is Removed.

The Shadow of Burial

Reading: John 19:38-42
Solo Response: “Were You There”
Silent Reflection
The Christ Candle Is Restored
Hymn: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (st. 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.

May Jesus Christ,
who for our sake became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross,
keep you and strengthen you.


The People Leave in Silence



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.

Tenebrae 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. We 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, we anticipate the joy of ultimate victory.

[note included in bulletin]

The Wrath of the Lamb

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

They called 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?”
—Revelation 6:16-17

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.

You see, 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, we are mostly 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?

Note: An earlier version of this meditation was published in the Reformed Journal.

Reformed Worship 50 © December 1998, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.