Service of shadows

Illustration by Will Dendis

The Reformed Church of Saugerties will host its fourth annual Tenebrae service April 5. The Tenebrae, also known as “The Service of Shadows,” follows the last days of Christ’s life in a haunting ceremony. Unlike the standard Passion Play, the Tenebrae leaves much to the imagination. The action happens behind a veil. This year’s performance features a troupe of professional Broadway singers and actors, who will stage a reenactment of the betrayal, persecution, and crucifixion of Jesus in nine dramatic vignettes, accompanied by music.

In a time of sensory overload, the format works on the principle of “less is more.”

“The people sitting in the church, the congregation, for most of the service, are almost in darkness,” says Jones.


The church, lit only by candle, grows darker during the performance. After every act, a candle is snuffed out. By the time that the performance ends with the death of Jesus on the cross, only one candle, the Christ Candle, remains.

Once the actual performance is over, the Christ Candle is escorted from the church, only to be brought back inside to the front of the sanctuary, in a display of hopefulness for the resurrection of Jesus.

The performance doesn’t pull any punches. The Christ Candle is its only image of hope. The Tenebrae service is powerful and emotionally hefty because it focuses on the humanity of Christ, portraying him in his simultaneously weakest and most glorious moment; Jeanne Jones, a professional acting veteran with years of Broadway experience, gets choked up just talking about it.

“When you’re watching a play or a drama, something happening on a stage, you are removed from it. There’s a wall there, and you see what’s actually happening. In this case, a performance like a radio drama, you hear the voices around you, and you feel like you are one of the people right there in the event,” says Jones. “That’s why it’s so, so deeply moving – because you are a part of it. It’s a very dark story.”

Reverend Terry O’Brien says the Tenebrae is “deeply powerful” because individuals have unique experiences. “Everyone envisions these characters differently in their own lives, and here they’re being recreated for you. You hear the voices of these biblical characters coming to life. [The performance] takes people through a range of emotions, through the very deepest of feelings. It touches people at the core, and takes you on a journey. It’s the breadth of emotions that we have in humanity. It’s the worst of feelings, in that we go through that pain and suffering that Jesus went through, but in the end, we are taken by the love that is there as well.”

The Tenebrae promises to be an emotionally dynamic, soul-stirring performance. The service will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on April 5, Maundy Thursday, at the Reformed Church of Saugerties on Main Street.