And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David […] To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child. And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son. (Luke 2:4-6)
Most Catholics are well aware of the traditional practice of novena prayers – nine days of prayer offered either to God or to a particular saint in petition for some special grace. The most popular novena is surely that to the Holy Spirit which is accomplished from the Ascension to Pentecost.
However, many may be surprised to realize that the first novena was not nine days, but nine months long! Indeed, this novena was accomplished by Christ himself in the womb of Mary his Mother.
Historically, it is in veneration of the pregnancy of the Mother of God that the novena practice developed in the devotional life of the Church.
The first Christian novenas
It seems that, although the first “novena” was carried out by the Apostles (together with the Blessed Virgin Mary) in an upper-room in Jerusalem during the nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost, the Christian faithful first began to keep “novenas” not in preparation for Pentecost, but rather before Christmas.
By the seventh century, particularly in Spain and France, the faithful kept of a nine-day novena of preparation before the Solemnity of Christmas. It is clear that these nine days of prayer were symbolic of the nine months which our Savior spent in the womb of Mary his Mother.
Thus, we may well say that our Lord made a nine-month novena with Mary before coming forth from her most pure womb, and so likewise the Apostles made a nine-day novena with May before going forth to preach the Gospel throughout the whole world.
However, the general practice of novenas did not gain official approval by the Church (through the granting of indulgences) until the nineteenth century. Indeed, it is quite surprising that the practice of novenas did not gain greater popularity and official support earlier!
Our Lord made the first novena from the womb
Taken from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
“As has been said, the simplest explanation of the Christmas novena is the nine months of Christ in the womb.”
The novena practice of nine days of prayer was all but unknown to the Jewish tradition. Rather, this practice was something which sprang up within the Christian Church which had spread among the Gentiles.
Indeed, we must admit that the novena practice has its only real parallel in certain pagan practices. However, there can be no doubt that the novena prayer itself was modeled by our Savior during his stay in the virginal womb of Mary.
Further, the Lord instituted the novena in a particular way when he admonished the Apostles to await the promised Spirit which was to be given at Pentecost. Thus, the vigil with the Apostles and our Lady made during the nine days from the Ascension to Pentecost were the first novena prayer of the Christian Faithful. For more on this, see our earlier article [here].
The Divine Infant was praying for those nine months
Now, in order for the gestation period of our Lord to have been a true novena, it was necessary that he should be praying through that whole time.
Further, we know that our Lord does not pray insofar as he is God (for, as God, he receives prayers), but only in and from his sacred humanity. Therefore, if our Lord offered a nine month novena prayer from the womb of Mary, he did so in his humanity, that is, in his human soul.
And again, if our Lord was praying in his human soul, then it must necessarily follow that he was rational – able to know and to love – since a man can only offer worthy prayer if he does so with knowledge, love, and freedom. Therefore, it is clear that our good Jesus had full use of reason (in his human soul) from the first moment of his conception.
This is the teaching of the Holy Church, as she affirms that Jesus knew and loved each and every one of us (and was surely praying for us) from the moment he came into the world:
“The knowledge and love of our Divine Redeemer, of which we were the object from the first moment of His Incarnation, exceed all the human intellect can hope to grasp. For hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when He began to enjoy the beatific vision, and in that vision all the members of His Mystical Body were continually and unceasingly present to Him, and He embraced them with His redeeming love.” (Pius XII, Mystici Corporis 75)
A much fuller discussion of this can be found [here].
You have professed this doctrine yourself, though you may not have noticed!
Lest you think all this is far beyond what you can accept. Lest you should believe that this is unbelievable. I would point out that – if you are a native English-speaker – I am certain that you have already asserted many times (and in public) that the Child Jesus reached the age of reason when yet an infant. For you have certainly sung the popular Christmas carol “What Child is this?” by William Chatterton Dix (ca. 1865). In that carol, we hear the following:
“Why lies He in such mean estate / Where ox and ass are feeding? / Good Christian, fear: for sinners here, / The silent Word is pleading.”
The carol sings that the newborn Babe is “pleading”, that is “praying” for us poor sinners. How can an infant pray, if he is not yet rational? How can a child plead – that is “plead” in such a way as to truly merit our salvation – if he has no free-will? Indeed, the Christ Child was already praying for us when laid in the manger, and so too he was praying for us from the first moment of his conception.
This is why we must hold that Jesus had the use of reason from the first instant of the Incarnation: There was never a moment when our Savior was irrational, never a moment when he did not know us and love us, never a moment when he was simply a passive observer; but all along, from the beginning to the end, our Lord knew and loved each of us, he merited our salvation, and he prayed in our behalf.
This is no “hard teaching”, but a wonderful proclamation of the love of our Savior. How consoling it is to look upon the Christ Child and know that he already understands me, knows me, and loves me!
Come Lord Jesus! Come quickly!