Today is the beginning of the Ur-Novena, the primary origin of the Catholic novena, or nine day series of prayers, the Novena of Pentecost.
The Christian use of the novena stems directly from the nine day time frame, Ascension to Pentecost, during which the Apostles were commanded by Christ to tarry in prayer in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). They were to wait nine days in prayer with Mother Mary and at the end of that time the Spirit was poured out in great measure, giving birth to the public Church and the great Evangelization which followed.
Novenas were also common in many cultures in the ancient world, especially as a nine day period of mourning following the death of a loved one. How fitting, then, that the Church waits in expectation for the return of her Lord in the form of life-giving Spirit.
Many dioceses in the United States have transferred today's Feast of Ascension to this coming Sunday. I suppose the rationale is to make the Ascension celebration more widely accessible to those not attending daily Mass. However, the practical effect of this tranference is also to obscure the "nine-ness" of the Novena.
Novenas come in all shapes and sizes. My own first experience came several years ago when a colleague of mine casually remarked that she did a nine-day novena to St Therese of Liseux in order to get help with her vocation as an artist. She reported that immediately following the novena she was asked to place her paintings in a prominent office in the Metro area- a totally unexpected boon. Based on her testimony, I then began a similar series of prayers on behalf of my sons. A few days into the novena I discovered, unbeknownst to me, that the last day of my novena coincided with the Feast of St Joseph. It was a small sign to me that my prayers were being heard. And they were.
It seems that the novena can at times become a superstitious practice. One sometimes sees slips of paper left in pews about the "Never-Fail" Novena. I am sure the intent of the pray-ers is toward a positive good. However, simple repetition of words is not really at the heart of the novena process.
Instead, I like to think of the novena as a training period leading up to a race. Right now in spring one sees dozens of cyclists pedalling down the Minnesota roads. They are in intense preparation for the coming races. Joggers and runners likewise are out in force, doing their daily part. They all know that without some stretching of their capacities they will never achieve their full potential.
This nine day period leading up to Pentecost is also that for us Christians. We limber up our spiritual muscles, preparing for the great life-giving Event.
On your mark, get set, go.
Here's a link to a Pentecost Novena.