The Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa has, during the past forty years, been in the habit of observing the ten days between Ascension and Whitsunday as days of prayer. The custom had its origin during the revival that passed over this country between 1860 and 1862 in the suggestion of the minister of a parish which at that time had received special blessing. The observance has in many cases been accompanied with blessing. The opportunity it gives for training Christians in the knowledge of what God s Word teaches concerning the Spirit, to the practice and the faith to which it calls, to prayer and fellowship and special efforts in behalf of the careless, has often been of the greatest value.
The Full Blessing of Pentecost: The One Thing Needful
Rev. Andrew Murray, D.D. – Wellington, South Africa ~ 1908
Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are quite familiar with the spiritual discipline of praying a “novena.” A Catholic webpage explains –
The word Novena come from the word “novem” which means “nine.” It is a prayer that is said for nine consecutive days. A Novena may be a private or public spiritual devotion for the purpose of obtaining a special favor from heaven, be it a special grace, imploring a favor or to make a special petition. (http://www.catholicdoors.com/prayers/novena.htm)
The very first novena was the one that the Risen Christ Himself commanded of His disciples. In the Gospel of Luke, right before the Ascension, the Risen Christ told His disciples (24:47-49) –
…Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.
And in the book of Acts we are told that right before the Ascension the Risen Christ told the church (1:4-5) –
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
And then, right after the Ascension, Luke reported that (1:12-14) –
…they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
It was this nine days of concerted prayer by the early church between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday specifically for the gift of the Holy Spirit, the promised “power from on high,” that is the pattern for all novenas. There is great spiritual value in having the whole church pray for the same thing at the same time for a number of successive days. As Jesus explained (Luke 11:9-13) –
So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
The use of the verbs “asking, seeking and knocking” here suggest that Biblical praying requires both effort and persistence. There are some things that God will just not do until and unless we ask, and giving us the fullness of the Holy Spirit is one of those things. And so traditionally, during the nine days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, the church has asked for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the excerpt from the beginning of Andrew Murray’s book The Full Blessing of Pentecost: The One Thing Needful (1908) which described the practice of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa at the turn of the last century is proof that this was not just a Roman Catholic “thing.”
That we still need this fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on us both as Christians and as a church should be apparent to us all. More than 40 years ago the late Presbyterian Theologian J. Rodman Williams described “the deep spiritual crisis” that the church was in as “a haunting sense of something lacking.” He said that the greatest single problem in the church of his day a generation ago was “the lack of spiritual power.”
There is a spiritual vacuum, a feeling of emptiness, a sense of impotence. Where, many are asking, is the dynamic reality of God’s presence? …Why in every sector of Christianity today… [is] there so little evidence of spiritual power…? I am haunted by the memory of Pentecost and its power surging into the hearts of the disciples long, long ago. Where is that power today? Can it come among us again? It is time we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly received a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.
This coming Thursday (May 14) is Ascension Day, and the “novena” for a fresh experience of Pentecost begins first thing on Friday morning. So, this year, won’t you join me and countless others throughout the church universal in praying for that fresh infusion of the Holy Spirit’s power, presence and provision into our life both personally and corporately? It’s not complicated to do so. In fact, it’s just as simple as this prayer from the worship resources of the Church of England online (https://www.churchofengland.org) puts it –
Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire;
strengthen your children with the gift of faith,
revive your Church with the breath of love,
and renew the face of the earth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord
Pray this prayer with me for the nine days between Ascension (May 14) and Pentecost (May 24), and then come to worship expectantly… DBS+