When the lights went out at the New Orleans Superdome during the Super Bowl last month, I was strangely reminded of a little known religious ceremony of the Catholic Church. The ceremony is called Tenebrae, from the Latin for “darkness” or “shadows”. It takes place late on Holy Thursday, when Christians celebrate the Last Supper, or on Good Friday, the day on which the crucifixion of Jesus is remembered.
It’s a simple ceremony, and one of the oldest in Christianity. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced in church. The church is dark, but for seven candles burning in the sanctuary. One by one, someone goes to the ambo (church speak for “podium”) and read or sing a passage from the Book of Lamentations (as the title indicates, these are not happy songs). Then that person blows out one of the candles. This continues until there is only one candle left. After the seventh lamentation, the reader picks up the remaining candle and slowly walks out of the church.
Then Holy Hell erupts. I’ve experienced it in a few church settings, but by far the one that made the deepest impression on me one was the first, at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the Notre Dame campus. People start yelling, and stomping their feet, and banging hymnals on the pews in front of them. Mass chaos. A noise you would never associate with religion. It’s a big, loud temper tantrum. Bring back the light! Now! We cannot stand this darkness! After about a minute, which seems like an hour when you are in the midst of the uprising, the seventh reader brings the single candle back into the sanctuary. Everyone quiets down. Some leave the church and many stay to pray in silence. It doesn’t seem like much, but the single candle provides hope. It’s no accident that the Church celebrates Holy Week and Easter around the time of the spring equinox, when people of many cultures going back to the first humans celebrated the end of Winter, and the beginning of Spring.
Now back to the Super Bowl. The coach of the Baltimore Ravens, John Harbaugh, started yelling at some stadium official when the lights went out. (Don’t the broadcasters know that people can read lips? Especially simple works with a lot of K and T sounds.) Some of the players started playing catch, or stretching, or just laying down on the turf. The crowd was restless, and so were the broadcasters and the viewers. The lights were out for half an hour. That equals millions of dollars in commercial time. I could imagine all the “stakeholders” saying or at least thinking. Turn on the @!!!&**$##$@ lights! But as the lights slowly came back to full power, anyone watching could feel a great sense of relief—especially for the 49ers, who needed some time to regroup after getting trounced in the first half.
I think we can learn something about human behavior from this, and the power of ritual to transform our attitudes towards the earth and its resources. What happened at the Super Bowl was an unexpected failure of a relay in the electrical system, but what if we created a ritual with the purpose of making people more aware of the real value of the electricity that makes our way of life possible? Maybe communities could stage an hour of “lights out” (accepting hospitals and other emergency institutions). Everyone could be given a candle in advance, and maybe people would gather in the streets to sing hymns and lamentations to their local utility… Or something like that. I’m joking of course, but there is a real power in rituals that we may be able to harness to help us solve our energy problems. Technology won’t get us there alone. We need to change the way we think and feel about the resources we use. When we hold something precious we want to care for it and protect it.