by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua
Catholics consider the very first novena to have been created by Jesus Christ himself. Before Christ rose into heaven he instruct-ed his apostles to spend nine days praying for divine guidance as they awaited the arrival of the Holy Spirit. After the apostles spent this allotted time in prayer, the Holy Spirit appeared to them in the form of tongues of fire coming from the sky. These tongues rested on each apostle, giving them the gift of many languages and the burning desire to spread the story of Jesus Christ. It is thought that the nine—day tradition of prayer comes from this first novena. The novena of the Holy Spirit was written in the Middle Ages to commemorate this event, and so it is presented as the last and most important novena in this book.
Invoking the saints for help in healing illnesses and stopping plagues became very common by the first millennium. As the cult of saints grew from early times to the Middle Ages, their legends and relics became more revered. Because it was thought that these people lived the most Christ—like lives, they were honored for their sanctity and their bodies were considered more than human, inviolable by death and invested with divine healing powers. That is why the bodies of many of these early saints were cut up and distributed to churches in various loca-tions to be venerated and used in blessings. It was thought to be a physical way for the average person to share in the divine presence. In seventeenth—century Spain the Christmas novena was instituted. For nine days preceding Christmas Day, each symbolizing a month the infant Jesus spent in the womb, a spe-cial novena was said. Many towns in France and southern Italy began doing nine—day novenas in preparation for their local saint’s feast day. It became customary to invoke the saint for a requested favor that would be granted in this time of celebra-tion. Fearing that novenas would be used in superstition, the Church began to recognize them only in the mid—1800s. Of the many novenas, only thirty—two are officially recom-mended, mainly in honor of a feast day. Personal novenas for individualized intentions continue to be a very private form of prayer.
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