When I was growing up, the television network Nickelodeon had a Saturday evening line-up for pre-teens and teens called “SNICK.” Though most of Nickelodeon’s programming included cartoons and game shows that involved many gallons of green slime, SNICK featured slightly more sophisticated fare, including a sitcom featuring an omniscient narrator called Clarissa Explains It All, a quasi soap opera about a girl who could turn into a puddle of silver goo called The Secret World of Alex Mack, and a Saturday Night Live style sketch show called All That. I was a devotee of Nickelodeon’s Saturday night lineup, which was surprisingly high quality; many SNICK veterans have gone on to success in movies and on other television programs, including Saturday Night Live.
One show in the Saturday night lineup that I refused to watch, however, was a program called Are You Afraid of the Dark? As far as I can tell (I never actually watched a whole episode), Are You Afraid of the Dark? featured a group of teenagers who called themselves “The Midnight Society” (even though the show was on at 9:30) and met in a secret location every week. Gathered around a campfire, one member of the group would tell a scary story, which would be depicted by actors for the television audience. Most of the stories were adaptations of fairy tales or urban legends and probably weren’t all that scary, but the very idea of the show terrified me. I couldn’t understand why any group of sane people would get together and try to frighten one another. The show’s title asked whether I was afraid of the dark; my answer was an unequivocal “yes.” I was afraid of the dark and everything that could potentially happen in the dark.
One of the services traditionally associated with the Wednesday in Holy Week is Tenebrae, which comes from the Latin word for “shadows.” It’s one of the more unusual services of the Church, and features readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the letter to the Hebrews, and a treatise on the Psalms written by Saint Augustine. The most conspicuous feature of the service is the gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights in the church until only one candle remains. As we prepare our hearts for the final days of Holy Week, the church is gradually shrouded in darkness and shadow. This process is symbolic of the gathering darkness, the fact that forces are beginning to conspire to put Jesus to death. Tenebrae seems to say that if ever there was a time to be afraid of the dark, it would be now. And yet, even at the end of the service, when the entire church is covered in darkness and we are anticipating Jesus’ betrayal and death, a single candle burns. I’m always amazed how much light that single candle casts; it illuminates the faces of those who have gathered to face the darkness and steels their resolve. That single candle reminds us that even when we feel that all hope is lost, even as Jesus gasps for life on the cross, there is hope. That single candle reminds us that even when our world seems to be crashing down around us, the faintest glimmer of hope can give us courage and sustain us. Even in the despairing final days of Holy Week, there is a whisper that reminds us we can hope for new life and transformation.