This month, during the days between Ascension and Pentecost, we are being asked to take part in a global 'Novena of Prayer' for the mission of the Church. It's part of a Church of England initiative called 'Thy kingdom come' which was launched three years ago.
In 2016 over a hundred thousand people joined in the novena. The following year over half a million Christians from more than eighty countries took part. The Archbishop of Canterbury has said of the initiative, 'I cannot remember in my life anything that I've been involved in where I have sensed so clearly the work of the Spirit'.
A 'Novena' of prayer has its roots in Catholic devotion. The name is from the Latin word for 'nine', 'novum'. It calls on the Christian community to pray privately or together for the Church and its mission in the world. The days between Ascension and Pentecost are an ideal opportunity for this.
When we read the New Testament accounts of the days between the ascension of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost we see that the disciples were an expectant community.
They had been through so much during the three years they had accompanied Jesus and his itinerant ministry. They had listened to his revolutionary teaching, witnessed miraculous events and recognised him as the long awaited Messiah. But they had also experienced how it all seemed to go so horribly wrong when, during Holy Week, the shouts of 'Hosanna to the Son of David' turned to 'Crucify him! We have no king but Caesar!' They had been devastated by his brutal death and, three days later, were bewildered by the mystery and joy of his resurrection.
The Book of Acts tells us that, 'for forty days after his death Jesus appeared to the disciples many times in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive.' On the day he ascended into heaven he instructed the apostles to 'stay in the city and to wait for the promised power from on high.' Though they had no idea what that gift would be they waited faithfully for it. When it came it did so with hurricane force wind and flames of fire which transformed the disciples from a timid band of followers to a confident community that went out and proclaimed the gospel in ways that broke through the linguistic and cultural barriers of the day. The Church was born and empowered.
One of the problems facing the Church of our generation, especially here in the West, is that we have come to expect very little. We resign ourselves to the influences of secularism and consumerism; we don't expect our Churches to be full, especially when it comes to young people and families. In our lifetime, we have witnessed the near collapse of Welsh Nonconformity; we have seen Sundays transformed from the Sabbath to a leisure day; and we have watched the decline of the influence of the Church in many aspects of community and national life. There is the temptation to look at what we do in response to all of this as 'managed decline.'
But the history of our faith shows that decline need not be the last word for us. The revivals of past generations brought Pentecostal fire back into the Church at key moments in its life. The Welsh revival, of just over a century ago, was just one example of what can happen when we become an expectant community.
The call to a novena of prayer, as part of the 'Thy kingdom come' initiative, is one way in which we can open our Church again to the refining power of the Holy Spirit. I encourage you to pick up one of the special novena cards and join with Christians across the world in praying for the mission and renewal of the Church. It will encourage us to be an expectant people once again; waiting, like the disciples of so long ago, for 'the promised power from on high'. For with God all things are possible.