Ascension Thursday begins what we may call the Church’s first novena. It is the nine-day period between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday in which the disciples were locked in the Upper Room, united in prayer with Our Lady, and obedient to the Lord’s wishes: “to wait for ‘the promise of the Father’” (Acts 1:4). This novena is like a yearly retreat for the Church to watch and pray with the Blessed Virgin Mary for the coming of the divine Sanctifier, the promise of the Father.
I have always found it curious that there is very little evidence of Mary’s presence during our Lord’s public life. After the Wedding at Cana, she all but disappears from the pages of the Gospel until we see her again briefly at the end, standing at Calvary with Him. Then, she enters the scene again in the Upper Room after the Ascension where she carries out one of her most critical works in all of salvation history: she teaches the disciples the fundamental virtue of trusting, patient prayer.
Our Lady is perfectly suited for this task. In every way, Mary’s life is a mirror image of what the Church would later be. In this case, she had already opened her heart to the Spirit of Christ when He “overshadowed” her at the Annunciation (Luke 1:35), so when the Church went behind closed doors and prepared to receive God’s greatest gift, the disciples had an ideal mentor to guide them.
Undoing obstacles to grace
But there may be more to Our Lady’s role than just teaching the disciples to wait and pray. She also had to free them of a spiritual obstacle that could have rendered them incapable of receiving the Holy Spirit. Our catechism tells us that our souls must be interiorly disposed to receive grace if it is to have any effect in our lives. But what if the disciples had not been sufficiently capable of receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost?
According to every account of the Gospels, the disciples were paralyzed by fear after Jesus’ Resurrection. They feared the real possibility of persecution by the powers of the day; they feared their own people who were clearly disappointed by the catastrophic “failure” of Jesus’ ministry on Calvary. Above all, they feared a future without Jesus.
It is easy to dismiss these fears from the distance of two millennia, but Our Lady, who was intimately aware of the disciples’ anxieties, did not. She actively freed them from the major obstacle of fear during their novena. How did she do this? She re-affirmed their original enthusiasm and faith in Jesus; she reminded them that Jesus fulfilled every ancient prophecy; she repeated His promises to them: “Do not let your hearts be troubled…I go and prepare a place for you…I will come back again and take you to myself” (John 14:1-3). Whatever her specific method of touching their hearts, Our Lady spent those nine days liberating the disciples of their interior obstacles to grace.
One thing is clear: the weak and timid disciples who had gathered in fear after the Resurrection were not the same men who emerged from the Upper Room on Pentecost Sunday to preach and baptize thousands (Acts 2:41). They were transformed men. The grace of the Holy Spirit had changed their hearts, but they would not have so fully received the gift of God were it not for the Lady in their midst who had untied the knot of fear in those timid hearts.
Prepared to say “Yes”
Our Lady will prepare us to say “Yes” too if we allow her to work in our hearts. Mary is more than a comforting presence. She is an antidote to fear. She undoes the real anxieties of our lives. She helps us confront them directly and enlightens our minds about them. Rather than simply telling us that everything will be okay, she helps us to find real solutions to these problems and gives us spiritual growth through them.
As we prayerfully embrace the Church’s novena between Ascension and Pentecost, we enter into retreat with Mary – a retreat of the heart. In this time of immense grace, make sure to surrender all your fears and anxieties to our dear Lady. She will untie any knot of fear in your heart and prepare you to receive God’s greatest gift. She’s been doing that for His disciples for at least 2000 years.
By Peter Darcy