Novenas in Scripture
The 2nd Annual Evangelium Vitae novena is less than a week away, so I though it might be interesting to look at the origins of novenas. The word novena is derived from the latin word meaning ‘nine’, and a novena consists of some form of prayer involving nine parts. Novenas, as we know them, have been around since the 17th century. But are novenas just a Catholic thing, or do they have some basis in Scripture?
What a Novena Isn’t
Novenas, like other forms of prayer, must never be seen as a way of forcing God to give us what we pray for - God is not like a fairy godmother who grants wishes to needy victims. God has a plan for each of us, and when we pray, we must only want what is in accordance with that plan. By praying, we clarify our needs and prioritise them, and become more open to seeing God’s providence in our lives. Just saying the words of a novena, without meaning them, is more akin to superstition than faith - prayer is meant to mould us into a likeness of Christ, to perfect us, to continually wear away more of our sinful tendencies.
Some parts of Scripture may lead us to think that repetitious prayer, like those said during a novena, are not pleasing to God:
Matthew 6: 7-8
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him…”
But we know that the very next verse tells of the prayer that Jesus gave us, the Our Father; a prayer that we know is pleasing to God, no matter how many times we repeat it with a good disposition. And it was customary among the Jews to repeat the Psalms often. Additionally, Acts 2:42 and 3:1 suggest set, repetitive prayer. And Revelations 4:8 tells us of the angels who unceasingly repeat “Holy, holy, holy…”
Luke 18:8 also gives a strong recommendation for us to persevere in prayer.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Thus it isn’t the repetition that is wrong, but a lack of purity of intention that displeases God.
Examples of Repetition in Scripture
There are many examples in Scripture of prayers maintained for a period of days:
- Moses spent 40 days and nights praying before he received the ten commandments from God. (Exodus 34:28)
- Queen Esther and the Jewish people prayed and fasted for three days before she appealed to her husband, the king, to spare them (Esther 4:16).
- Judas encouraged the Jews to pray and fast for three days in order to defeat their enemies, the Gentiles (2 Macc 13:12)
- Jesus Himself prayed and fasted for forty days in the desert before beginning His public ministry - this of course, is the origin of the Catholic practise of Lent. (Mt 4:2)
The Ultimate Novena
The ultimate novena is the only example in Scripture of prayer for nine days - this was when Jesus exhorted His disciples to stay and pray together from the time of His Ascension until the coming of the Spirit. (Acts 1:14). The second chapter of Acts shows the amazing fruit of the disciples’ dedication to prayer:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
I hope you’ve learned a little about novenas with this post. It appears that this isn’t a specifically Catholic form of prayer after all, but one with roots in the Old Testament, and used by God’s chosen people. You’re welcome to join our Evangelium Vitae novena which will begin on March 16 - this link will take you to a post about the novena, where you can find another link to our prayers and meditations on the Gospel of Life.