Nine Days

Let’s get to the most important thing first: Happy Mother’s Day!! Mothers out there, I hope you spend the rest of your day just relaxing and doing nothing. [Pause for laughter :) ]

Being a mom is hard work. Amen? I’ll have a prayer for us all at the announcements. It’s a prayer from Kate Bowler, a theology professor at Duke that all moms should know about. Her most recent book is called The Lives We Actually Have. Bowler is an academic and great writer, but her authority also comes from the hardships she’s faced. She knows whereof she speaks. She’s been a great help to me, and a lot of mothers. I’m thankful for people like her.

The other important thing to mention today is that we’re celebrating five kids who’ve completed a class on Holy Communion! They are: Annaliese Martoken, Kiera McNally, Connor Henry, Lexi Dodia, and Camila Barria. Some of them will be receiving Communion today for the first time, others have been receiving (as is the practice of the Episcopal Church) but now have a better understanding of what this sacrament means in our tradition. We’re so excited for them. They’ll be invited today to stand with me and Mo. Eliza at the altar and to receive Communion first, just after the choir. Congratulations to all of them, and welcome to their families and friends.

We’re now in the shortest season in the church year, Ascensiontide, which started last Thursday and ends next Sunday. It’s the nine-day period between Jesus’ ascension into heaven as the disciples looked on, his final earthly departure from them, and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, which we’ll celebrate next Sunday.

I can’t believe I didn’t know this until recently, but these nine days of Ascensiontide are the basis of the practice of saying novenas--novena from “nine.” A novena is a prayer (as most of you from a Roman Catholic background know, but we Episcopalians have them too) that you say for nine consecutive days. You might be given a novena by a priest for a specific reason, you might have them in a book to choose for yourself. They say them in monasteries and convents. Novenas don’t factor much into parish life, but we do use them as Anglicans and they’re out there as a resource.  

As he departed from them, Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, which would come to take his place. And while they waited, those nine days (the book of Acts tells us), they prayed. The first (as church tradition has it) novena.

Nine days, waiting, and praying. 

How do you pray?

When I moved to the Diocese of New York, one of the things you have to do if you intend to stay in the diocese is to become canonically resident--to establish yourself as a priest here, under the authority of this bishop, rather than wherever you’re coming from. The Rev. John Osgood did the interview for my canonical residency. I was 28, intimidated by the Diocese of New York. I remember him being behind a huge important-looking desk in the chapter house, the name for the diocesan offices at the cathedral. I was intimidated just to be in a “chapter house.”

He didn’t ask much. They’d run a credit check on me and found I had an outstanding debt with ATT, and did I have plans to resolve that. Yes, I assured him. The only other question I remember him asking was: How do you pray? 

I had tremendous respect for the Diocese of New York for asking that question of its incoming priests. 

How do you pray? 

I told Father Osgood: I read. I take walks. I think. I try to create space in my life. It was easy to say that at 28! But that memory came back to me this week for the first time since I sat at the interview. Because mothers out there, especially those of you actively raising your kids right now: every minute of our day seems to have its demands on us. You could be a mother 24 hours of the day if that were physically possible. I’ll include you fathers, too. 

Whether prayer for you is making petitions to God, saying the names of people you love, speaking out loud your wishes and disappointments, or just moments of quiet reflection and clearing your mind--and prayer can be all those things--prayer needs: intentional time. 

Yes, the monks tell us you can pray while washing dishes. Or cooking dinner. Manual labor is prayer, too. The monk and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen had some lovely things to say about this when he was at the Genesee Monastery in upstate New York. The monks there bake bread, a lot of it, to sell, and Nouwen’s job was to sort the rocks out of the raisins when they came in from the manufacturer. He couldn’t see how this had anything to do with his reason for being at the monastery, until he began to think of the work of his hands, as a form of prayer--as generations of monks and nuns have done before him.

That’s one way to work prayer into a busy life. 

Another way is to get more serious about making time for it.  

We need periods of nothing to do. That’s what these nine days of Ascension help us remember. Nine days the disciples waited, and prayed, after Jesus left them and before the Holy Spirit came. God could have just sent the Holy Spirit right away and put them to work, but he didn’t. God gave them, and now us, these nine days on which would come to be based a whole tradition of prayer, the novena. 

Days that remind us of the importance of pausing, of praying, of making time for more than doing. Even moms, with help (dads and kids) can make time. So I wish you a blessed Mother's Day, and a prayerful season of Ascension. Amen.