A “novena” (from Latin: “Novem” meaning “Nine”) is a cycle of focused prayer that lasts for nine consecutive days. This is a spiritual discipline of intentionality and intensity. For nine days you pray about the same thing.
The origin of this spiritual practice is Biblical. In Luke 24:44-49, the Risen Christ instructed His disciples –
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what My Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say, is found in Acts 1 (remember that Luke wrote both the Gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts).
3 After His suffering, He presented Himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that He was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while He was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift My Father promised, which you have heard Me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Connect the dots between Luke 24:49’s “what My Father has promised” and Acts 1:4’s “the gift My Father has promised.” Luke was talking about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost which took place 50 days after Christ’s Resurrection (Acts 2:1) and 10 days after Christ’s Ascension (Acts 1:3;9). And so, the Biblical tradition tells us that the disciples gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14), just as they had been instructed, to wait and pray for the fulfillment of the promise that they would be “clothed with power from on high.” They prayed about this for nine consecutive days after the Ascension until they were finally immersed in the fullness of the Holy Spirit on the tenth day – the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). And it is from this narrative about these nine days of focused and expectant prayer that the spiritual practice of the novena first arose.
But the importance of persistent prayer goes back deeper into the Jesus tradition than this.
The familiar exhortation in our Lord’s teachings about prayer to “ask,” “seek” and “knock” (Matthew 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-10) suggests in the minds of many interpreters an ascending order of intensity and intentionality in our praying. To “seek” is to do more than to “ask.” And to “knock” is to do more than to “seek.” And just so that there would be no confusion about this, Luke gave us this rather provocative parable from the teachings of Jesus –
1Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ 4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
There are some rather steep interpretive cliffs in this parable off of which you do not want to tumble, but there is also a very clear and emphatic point that’s being made. Casual requests haphazardly made of God in passing just don’t require very much of those who pray. Like a child in toy store whose fancy passes with every aisle turned down, it’s hard to take seriously the desires that get stirred up in us like “the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). In contrast, agonizing prayers that have been offered up with tears over a long period of time have a seriousness of intent that reveals something important about what’s going on deep in the heart of the one who is praying. Consider this fascinating reference to the prayer life of Jesus Christ made by the author of Hebrews –
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. (Hebrews 5:17).
Christ’s praying was focused. It was intense. It was life and death serious. In his hymn “Rock of Ages” Augustus Toplady wrote –
Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die.
I am absolutely intrigued by that last petition: “Wash me, Savior, or I die”? Have I ever prayed with that kind of intensity? Have I ever sought anything from the hand of the Lord that I would have preferred death over not receiving it? And my honest answer is “not yet.” This may be because I have not been that desperate yet in my life. Or, it might be because I have just not taken prayer all that seriously up to this point in my life. But whatever the reason, my praying has lacked that kind of focus and feeling, and frankly, that kind of bothers me.
A.W. Tozer in one of his essays wrote about a slogan that is familiar to those who belong to the revival tradition of Christianity (It is probably worth pointing out here that the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ] was born in a revival – The “American Pentecost” at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801). They like to say that “Revivals are born after midnight,” and A.W. Tozer explained what this means by writing –
This is one of those proverbs which, while not quite literally true, yet points to something very true. If we understand the saying to mean that God does not hear our prayer for revival made in the daytime, it is of course not true. If we take it to mean that prayer offered when we are tired and worn-out has greater power than prayer made when we are rested and fresh, again it is not true… Yet there is considerable truth in the idea that revivals are born after midnight, for revivals (or any other spiritual gifts and graces) come only to those who want them badly enough. It may be said without qualification that every man is as holy and as full of the Spirit as he wants to be. He may not be as full as he wishes he were, but he is most certainly as full as he wants to be… The problem is not to persuade God to fill us, but to want God sufficiently to permit Him to do so… Long prayer vigils, or even strong crying and tears, are not in themselves meritorious acts. Every blessing flows out of the goodness of God as from a fountain… Yet for all God’s good will toward us He is unable to grant us our heart’s desires till all our desires have been reduced to one… No, there is no merit in late hour prayers, but it requires a serious mind and a determined heart to pray past the ordinary into the unusual. Most Christians never do. And it is more than possible that the rare soul who presses on into the unusual experience reaches there after midnight.
It is this “praying past the ordinary into the unusual” that is missing in my spiritual life, and I’m thinking that the spiritual discipline of the novena just might be part of how I can find it.
Recently, while doing some research for another project, I stumbled across the website of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis up in Peoria, Illinois (http://www.franciscansisterspeoria.org/prayer.htm). And in the explanation of their life of prayer as a community, there was this description of their annual spiritual discipline of praying the Christmas Novena –
Our Christmas Novena is a very special spiritual preparation for Christmas, helping us to live more deeply in the spirit of hope and longing for Christ’s future coming. It is held each evening from December 16 to 24. It begins with a candlelight procession from our conference room, down the hall and into Chapel, which is dimly lit. We sing Advent songs on the way. In Chapel we continue with Psalms, hymns, and spiritual Canticles, Old Testament readings and scriptural prophecies regarding our Savior’s coming. The “O Antiphons” are chanted with the Magnificat. The Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament follows, and the service ends with another Psalm. This simple and impressive spiritual service stays with us throughout these Advent days as we pray in our hearts, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
And then, by clicking on “Christmas Novena” I was redirected to the actual liturgy that they use, and that’s when I decided that I was going to pray it myself as a part of my Advent/Christmas preparations this year, beginning December 16, and continuing for nine days until December 24. I don’t know that this will help me “pray past the ordinary into the unusual,” but I know that it can’t hurt, and so I invite you to think about joining me. I wonder what Christmas will be like for a heart that has been prepared for it through nine days of focused praying? Well, this year I’m going to find out. DBS+