I hope all readers had a happy feast of the Ascension. For most people in this country it was Ascension Sunday that you celebrated; but for me and a small minority it was Ascension Thursday.
I have been away on retreat, staying in a strictly enclosed Benedictine monastery. On arrival I asked what was happening on the Thursday, and this is what I was told: “Here we celebrate the Ascension on Thursday, by special permission. Celebrating it on Sunday would mean that the novena between Ascension and Pentecost would make no sense.”
Funnily enough, this aspect of the great question had never occurred to me. Given that Ascension is on a Thursday and the feast of Pentecost the Sunday after next, that means that there is a nine day gap between the two, and this nine day gap, traditionally the time when the Church waits in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit, is the reason we keep novenas. This is the original ur-Novena.
It says in the Acts of the Apostles, 1:12-14:
Then [ after the Ascension] they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
Not only was this the first ever novena in the history of the Church, and the pattern of all future novenas, it was also the most distinguished one in Church history, consisting of the eleven apostles, the holy women, and the Mother of God Herself.
Despite this, I have the distinct feeling that novenas are going out of fashion. It is time they were revived, and the same goes for Octaves too, the custom of marking the eighth day after a feast and the period in between. The Easter Octave is still with us, but the Octave of the Assumption, which ends with the feast of the Queenship of Mary is one celebration that I have never witnessed. As a child, I do remember making a novena before the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
I suppose what we are witnessing here is the disappearance of the concept of sacred time; this is a huge pity, for a tradition once lost can only with great difficulty be restored. We can hardly complain about Christmas concerts and Christmas parties in the first weeks of December when we ourselves go along with this creeping secularisation. I asked last year about the restoration of the Ascension to the Thursday, and there was some talk of putting it back in its original place.
Is it worth asking again?