This year by way of a daily Lenten meditation offering, I plan to focus on the psalms of the Office of Tenebrae, which is traditionally sung on the evenings of Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Tenebrae, where it is still sung, is a particularly beautiful part of the Holy Week liturgy. It is most famous perhaps for its beautiful ceremonial, including the hearse of candles, one of which is extinguished as each psalm is said, and for the reading or singing of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the various responsories of Tenebrae that go with the Matins readings (including the many famous polyphonic settings thereof).
Why the psalms?
I want, however, to concentrate on the psalms of the Tenebrae, which I think provide a really splendid teasing out of the events and theology that underlies the Sacred Triduum, those three intense days that encapsulate the wait for the salvation of the Resurrection that is the theme of the whole of Lent.
St Robert Bellarmine in his commentary on the first psalm of Tenebrae, Psalm 68, points out that the Gospels are often quite sparse on the details of the events of these days. The Gospels do, however, repeatedly point us to the texts which draw out the events in more detail.
Psalm 68, for example, is one of the most quoted psalms in the New Testament. Here is St Robert's explanation of why:
"The history of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Gospel, takes very little notice of the intensity of his sufferings, because the evangelists wished to show that it was quite voluntary, and borne with the greatest fortitude. But, as it was right that the world should know that the sufferings of Christ were intense beyond measure, and learn from thence the extent of their debt to the Redeemer, the Holy Ghost was pleased to reveal the intensity of his sufferings, long before, to the prophets, and, through them, as trustworthy witnesses and above suspicion, to be narrated to us. Isaias, therefore, wrote much about them, so did Jeremias, but none more than David."
And because this Office is so ancient, the particular psalms selected can teach us a lot about the understanding the early Church had of these events.
Accordingly, praying and meditating on one of them a day might make a suitable Lenten penance or at least form part of our Lenten program.
The Office of Tenebrae
Tenebrae, a word which literally means darkness, is the very ancient form of the Divine Office said during the Sacred Triduum. The monastic and Roman forms of the (pre-1955 reform) Office of Tenebrae are identical, reflecting the ancient origins of the hour.
It has, unfortunately, been abolished altogether in the novus ordo.
Worse, it is has been made almost impossible to perform liturgically outside a monastery under the 1962 rubrics by the prohibition on anticipating Lauds. The way around this, I'm told, is to make your evening Tenebrae service notionally a devotional one, rather than a liturgical - that's fine for the laity, but an issue for those such as clerics who are bound to say the Divine Office, preferably without engaging in liturgical abuse!
In any case, the Office of Tenebrae on each of the three days consists of the 'hours' of Matins (originally said after midnight) and Lauds (normally said at first light). During the Triduum, however, both hours are joined together and said in darkness.
Matins on each day consists of three nocturns, each with three psalms with antiphons, and three readings, each of which has a responsory (and the chant settings of these are some of the richest and most challenging in the chant repertory).
Lauds on each day consists of Psalm 50 (the Miserere) and three other psalms, each with an antiphon; a Scriptural canticle with antiphon; the Benedictus with antiphon; and concluding prayers which feature the antiphon 'Christus factus est pro nobis', with a phrase being added to this each night.
As a few of the psalms are repeated, there are exactly enough for us to look at one a day in the period up to Holy Wednesday.
The psalms set for the Office of Maundy Thursday are (psalm numbering according to the Vulgate; an asterix indicates a psalm that is repeated): 68, 69, 70; 71, 72, 73; 74, 75*, 76; 50*, 89, 35, [Ex 15]; 146.
For Good Friday: 2, 21, 26; 37, 39, 53*; 58, 87*, 93; 50*, 142, 84, [Hab]; 147.
For Holy Saturday: 4, 14, 15; 23, 26, 29; 53*, 75, 87*; 50*, 91, 63, [Is 38], 150.
You can find a nicely laid out version of the Greek, Latin and English (an updated version of the Douay-Rheims which I'll generally use) over at the excellent New Advent website.
I do hope you will join me in meditating on one of these psalms each day...