Vicar's Talks - Monday of Holy Week

We have used the Liturgy of Tenebrae before for these three Holy Week meditations. Strictly speaking it is used only on the Wednesday evening of Holy week (or possibly early on Maundy Thursday morning). A feature of the liturgy is the gradual extinguishing of candles after each of the lessons. As the liturgy progresses we are led further and further into darkness – something that is rather difficult to achieve ‘All in an April’s evening’.  Tenebrae means ‘darkness’. We will use what are called the first three Nocturns of the liturgy, today, tomorrow and Wednesday evening.  We won’t however use the final part of the liturgy which is called Lauds: this ends with the last candle being extinguished and then someone slamming a door, to signify the closing up of Christ’s tomb – we will save that moment for Good Friday.

So what are we doing? There is a sense in which prayer is, put simply, ‘turning up’: being present to God.  We can do this as we make our way through each day- as we respond to the newspapers, as we notice (perhaps) feelings of compassion or joy or distress within us: these are prayer. But, to help us simply to ‘be here’, in this place, our service offers us the chance to sit with some of the psalms, to let them percolate into our souls. We will say these psalms quietly, reflectively. There is no rush so please speak quietly and try to not to ‘push us on’: making the journey of faith through the psalms is what is important, not simply ‘ticking them off and getting to the psalm’s end. Each psalm is top and tailed by an antiphon – so you will need these to hand.

Then, after the psalms we have our readings.

Tonight’s psalms are Psalm 69, 70 and 74. They are psalms of lament and despair. Notice as we say them that some of the words from these psalms have found their way into the New Testament and our reading of the story of Jesus.  ‘Zeal for your house has consumed me. They gave me gall to eat, and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink.’ We are only using part of Psalm 69 but it, in particular, has been used to speak of Christ.

And then we have readings from the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations is a poem: each verse beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In common with the psalms it is a poem of distress and loss. The psalms oscillate between being intensely personal – one individual’s experience of being hemmed in by his enemies- and then speaking of communal lament. Psalm 74, as does Lamentations, speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem, most especially of Jerusalem’s temple. Christians, of course, know that Jesus referred to his body as being ‘God’s temple’.

‘Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.’ It’s equivalent is in verse 7 of Psalm 74. Everything is being stripped away from God’s people. There is extreme violence – ‘Like men brandishing axes on high in a thicket of trees, all her carved work they smashed down with hatchet and hammer’ and it is no wonder that the people ask for deliverance. ‘How long, O Lord?’ ‘Why?’

Psalm 69 gives us rich imagery – ‘the waters have come up even to my neck’; ‘I have grown weary with crying’. Draw me out of the mire, rescue me, answer me, draw near to my soul. Everything has been taken from the writer. There is nothing left: no-one to turn to, no one to lean on save God.

These words ‘fit’ Holy week. They are appropriate for our reflection. They place us with Christ as all is taken from Him and he bears the weight of the sin of the world, he suffers its outpouring. His passion sees Him being ‘done unto’: as one of the meanings of the word passion suggests, he is ‘passive’.

But there is a difference between the experience of Christ and that of the innocent sufferers in the psalms or the nation under judgement in Lamentations. Christ’s Passion has been interpreted supremely as a sacrifice. All is taken from Him…but He also freely gives all. He ‘empties Himself of all but love’. This love is the constant throughout the whole Christian understanding of who Jesus is. It is not that Jesus, in Holy Week offers Himself as a sacrifice – He has been doing so from before eternity.

Hear Bill Vanstone’s famous words

1. Morning glory, starlit sky,

soaring music, scholar’s truth,

flight of swallows, autumn leaves,

memory’s treasure, grace of youth:


2. Open are the gifts of God,

gifts of love to mind and sense;

hidden is love’s agony,

love’s endeavor, love’s expense.


3. Love that gives, gives ever more,

gives with zeal, with eager hands,

spares not, keeps not, all outpours,

ventures all its all expends.


4. Drained is love in making full,

bound in setting others free,

poor in making many rich,

weak in giving power to be.


5. Therefore he who shows us God

helpless hangs upon the tree;

and the nails and crown of thorns

tell of what God’s love must be.


6. Here is God: no monarch he,

throned in easy state to reign;

here is God, whose arms of love

aching, spent, the world sustain.


Words: W.H. Vanstone (b. 1923)