In monasteries and cathedrals of the Middle Ages, Matins and Lauds were ordinarily sung in the early morning darkness, with Lauds concluding just at sunrise. However, during the three days before Easter these two offices were chanted the previous day, after Compline, and while they were sung, candles were extinguished one by one, as a symbol of the death of Jesus. The last candle was hidden, then a loud noise was made to recall the earthquake, and the candle was extinguished, leaving the church in darkness (in Latin, “tenebrae”).
Below is the traditional structure of Matins and Lauds for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week. Matins consisted of three parts called “Nocturns,” each with three psalms, and three lessons, each followed by a “Great Responsory,” which is an elaborate version of the dialog between soloist and choir that we find in the smaller offices.” The first three lessons of Matins were taken from the book of Lamentations, the second set of three from St. Augustine, and the third set from St. Paul. The following gives the specific psalms and lessons for Holy Thursday:
MATINS – FIRST NOCTURN
Three psalms with antiphons (Psalms 69, 70, 71)
Three lessons (from Lamentations 1:1-14), each followed by a Great Responsory
MATINS – SECOND NOCTURN
Three psalms with antiphons (Psalms 72, 73, 74)
Three lessons (from St. Augustine), each followed by a Great Responsory
MATINS – THIRD NOCTURN
Three psalms with antiphons (Psalms 75, 76, 77)
Three lessons (from St. Paul, I Corinthians 11, 17-34), each followed by a Great Responsory
Five psalms (Psalms 50, 89, 35, Exodus 15:1-19, and Psalm 146)
Benedictus canticle with antiphon
special antiphon Christus factus est pro nobis
Imagine, if you will, the typical arrangement of fifteen candles on a rack (called a “hearse”), with a candle extinguished after every psalm – nine in Matins and five in Lauds – with the last candle remaining for the ritual at the end of the service.
The Lamentations of Jeremiah have been the subject of many great compositions over the centuries. Listen to the setting by Peter Hallock, which is one of the musical examples in my book, Prayer as Night Falls.
Vinea mea electa, ego te plantavi: quomodo conversa es in amaritudinem,
ut me crucifigeres et Barrabam dimitteres.
Sepivi te, et lapides elegi ex te, et ædificavi turrim.
O vineyard, my elect, I planted you: how could you change from sweet to bitter,
to have crucified me and released Barrabas?
I protected you; I took away the stones, and built you a tower.
I wish you a blessed Holy Week, and a Happy Easter!