Wednesday in Holy Week

In the classical Roman Rite, the bulk of the liturgical reading of scripture takes place not at Mass, but at the midnight service anciently called Vigils or Nocturns, latterly Matins, and today simply the ‘Service of Readings’ (which can take place at any time). Here, divided into short sections framed by responsories (a particular form of text/chant) and interspersed with a good many Psalms with their antiphons, and also contextualized in many cases by patristic commentaries, the Scriptures, excepting the Gospels, were read through over the course of the year, beginning with Genesis at Septuagesima (cf. the Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer, bcp1979 866).

Matins was generally followed more or less directly by Lauds, the morning ‘mirror’ of Vespers, consisting mainly of psalms with antiphons, a hymn, and the Song of Zechariah (Benedictus Dominus Deus) with antiphon; in the 1549 revision of the rites of the Church of England, elements of Matins and Lauds were combined into ‘Mattins’ (later called simply ‘Daily Morning Prayer’), just as Vespers and Compline, also usually at that time sung consecutively, were combined into what was, and still is, colloquially called ‘Evensong’ (officially, ‘Daily Evening Prayer’). The Invitatory (Psalm 95) used at Morning Prayer and the conception of the Office essentially as a service of readings were the main elements of Matins carried over into the Prayer Book Office; otherwise the form disappeared in Anglican use.

The traditional form of the body of Matins for a major feast – after the Invitatory, three ‘Nocturns’, each with a set of Psalms, plus three lessons each followed by a responsory – inspired the now immensely popular Christmas service of Nine Lessons and Carols and its Advent offshoot, both found in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services [bos]. But Matins appears in the current rites of the Episcopal Church in a particular instance, under the heading of ‘Tenebrae’ in the bos.

Tenebrae (shadows, darkness) is a name traditionally given to Matins of the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday). The services are distinguished, as the bos introduction ‘Concerning the Service’ points out, by

the chant of the Lamentations (in which each verse is introduced by a letter of the Hebrew alphabet), [and..] the gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights in the church until only a single candle, considered a symbol of our Lord, remains. Toward the end of the service this candle is hidden, typifying the apparent victory of the forces of evil. At the very end, a loud noise is made, symbolizing the earthquake at the time of the resurrection (Matthew 28.2), the hidden candle is restored to its place, and by its light all depart in silence.*

The Additional Directions further specify the form and use of the candelabrum:

In preparation for the service, a large triangular candlestick with fifteen candles is placed at the liturgical south side of the sanctuary. One candle is extinguished at the end of each Psalm, and at the end of the Song of Hezekiah. Finally, during the singing of the canticle Benedictus, the candles at the Altar, and all other lights (except the one at the top of the triangular stand), are extinguished.

The bos service is a conflation of Matins of the three days, appointed for Wednesday evening only ‘in order that the proper liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday may find their place as the principal services of those days’ (Daily Morning and Evening Prayer continue, however, and perhaps there is no prohibition against individual or even small-group singing of the full Tenebrae on the nights of Thursday/Friday and Friday/Saturday). As with Tenebrae in the traditional Roman rite – and the services of Holy Week generally – the service here is stripped of a number of later ‘accretions’, including the entire Invitatory rite, the hymns, the use of ‘Gloria Patri’ after the Psalms, the blessings before the readings and the acclamations after them, and so forth. Here follows an outline of its form:


Nocturn I

·   3 Psalms with antiphons ( from Matins of Maundy Thursday, Nocturns I & II )
·   Versicle & Response
·   3 Lessons from Lm 1, each followed by a Responsory ( all from Nocturn I of Maundy Thursday )

Nocturn II

·   3 Psalms with antiphons ( from Matins of Good Friday, Nocturn I )
·   Versicle & Response
·   3 Lessons from the Treatise of St Augustine upon the Psalms [ Ps 55 ] ( from Matins of Maundy Thursday, Nocturn II ), each followed by a Responsory ( from Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Nocturn II )

Nocturn III

·   3 Psalms with antiphons ( from Matins of Holy Saturday, Nocturn III )
·   Versicle & Response
·   3 Lessons from the Epistle to the Hebrews ( from Matins of Good Friday, Nocturn III )
with 3 Responsories ( from Matins of Good Friday, Nocturns I and 3 )


·   Psalms ( not the same selection as Roman Lauds of any of the Triduum ) and a Canticle ( the Song of Hezekiah, Is 38.10–20, as at Lauds of Holy Saturday ), with antiphons from the various Lauds of the Triduum
·   Versicle & Response
·   Gospel Canticle: Benedictus Dominus Deus
with Antiphon from Lauds of Holy Saturday
·   Antiphon: Christus factus est
·   Psalm 51: Miserere [without antiphon, recto tono]
·   Collect: Respice [without salutation or invitation]

In the classical Roman Rite, the lessons from the Lamentations at these services follow on from readings from Jeremiah on Passion Sunday ( a week before Palm Sunday ), Palm Sunday itself, and Tuesday and Wednesday in Holy Week ( I suspect a longer series from Jeremiah was at some point preëmpted by the patristic commentaries upon the daily Mass Gospels that now appear on the intervening days, just as the Pentateuch series beginning at Septuagesima was, except on Sundays, replaced by such commentaries ). Year I of the bcp1979 Daily Office Lectionary reads a series from Jeremiah from the II. Sunday in Lent through Maundy Thursday, and Year II has Lamentations 1–3 in Holy Week.

The lessons from the Lamentations have been set to more than one elaborate chant tone as well as to original polyphony, traditionally incorporating – sometimes quite wonderfully, set to gem-like miniature points of imitation – the names of the Hebrew letters that begin the successive abecedarian stanzas of the biblical text, it not being possible to maintain the acrostic in translation, but it being felt necessary to preserve even these morsels of Scripture.

The Responsories, like many others for major feasts, have also been set polyphonically by a number of composers, keeping these texts lively after they had probably largely ceased to be chanted at Matins. (It is to be regretted that missing from the bos service are one of the most famous, ‘O vos omnes’ – though the text, the ‘Lamedh’ verse from Lamentations 1, is part of Lesson 3 – and one of the most moving, ‘Vinea mea electa’.)

Though the bos Tenebrae is a one-off service, and in one sense incomplete, it offers a window into the fuller traditional Office now distilled into Daily Morning and Evening Prayer (and the Orders for Noonday and Compline).

*  Though these two customs were and are no doubt popular, they cannot be called integral to the rite; the latter, in particular, grew out of the very practical need for the officiant to signal, by a clapper or a knock, the end of the concluding prayer, whose last clause was said silently.