The St. Andrew Novena: Prayerful preparation for Christmas

November 28, 2023

St. Andrew is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Frances de Chantal Church in Wantagh, N.Y. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (OSV News) — Ten years ago, Erika Kidd sat at the edge of a family member’s hospital bed. It was almost Christmas; wind buffeted the window. Quietly, she recited the St. Andrew Novena over and over again.

“Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour vouchsafe, I beseech thee, O my God, to hear my prayer and grant my desires Through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.”

It is a curious novena. Unlike a traditional novena, which spans nine days, it lasts from the feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30 to Christmas Eve. On each of these days, it is repeated 15 times, either all at once or throughout the day. The novena has a reputation for answered prayers. The prayer recalls the “hour and the moment” of Christ’s birth “at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold.” It evokes, with precision, the moment of the incarnation is revealed. For Kidd, the darkness at the moment of Christ’s birth was reminiscent of the cold hospital room.

“Waiting in the hospital, I felt myself to be in those dark moments, just before the arrival of Christ,” Kidd said. “And I prayed that He would come and set all things right... that He would come and save us.” Her request — that her family member return home in time for Christmas — was answered. Prayers of thanksgiving trod on the heels of her novena.

“The prayer invites us to take seriously the darkness of our current situation: The fact that Christ has not yet come again in glory, the fact that we are often living with difficult and troubling situations, and it invites us to welcome Christ and rejoice in Christ’s coming,” said Kidd, an associate professor of Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, who teaches a class on Mary.

For Father Edward Looney, president of the Mariological Society of America, the St. Andrew Novena is “prayerful preparation” for Christmas.

“We can be caught up in the busyness of preparing for Christmas — going to concerts, shopping, all of these things — but at least this prayer allows us to stay rooted and grounded and to think about what it is and why it is that we are celebrating Christmas,” said Father Looney, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay. It can be difficult to keep track of the prayer’s 15 daily repetitions; even if a person misses a day or prays less than 15 repetitions, Father Looney said that the novena is still efficacious.

“There can be a specific grace that you request, but then I think there are just the different graces of the Christmas season …. joy, hope, peace,” he said. “The joy of the incarnation — that is what we are praying for.”

Father Looney said that what we pray the novena for might be answered in a different way than we expected.

“There is always going to be a grace given by God. We believe, in our finite knowledge, that we know what God should do. But God, who is greater than us and knows all things, knows what is for our good or their good,” he said. “God is still at work, and God is aiding that situation.”

The prayer has an obscure history. Rachel Fulton Brown, an associate professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago and an expert in medieval Marian devotions, said that the repetition of 15 has a long tradition in the Church.

While the monks of the Middle Ages ascended into the chapel, they recited the 15 psalms traditionally associated with Mary — Psalms 119-133 in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible prepared by St. Jerome.

Over time, these 15 psalms became associated with the stairs that the 3-year-old Mary ascended into the temple as recorded in the “Protoevangelium of James,” an apocryphal, or non-scriptural, Gospel account from the second century that describes the infancy of Mary. Although the text does not specify the number of steps, the monastic tradition associated each psalm with a step into the temple.

Brown said that the St. Andrew Novena’s 15 repetitions likely stem from this tradition.