Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
by Father Jan Larson
(From the November 17, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)
Perhaps no religious term, other than the names of sacred persons, is as familiar to people of every faith and of no faith as the term “Amen.” We say the word at least 11 times during the celebration of the Mass. We even hear Jesus use the word in the course of his teaching, as he begins with “Amen, I say to you...” or even “Amen, Amen, I say to you...” It is on the lips of Jesus no less than 63 times in the Gospels. But as is the case with so many words that have great significance but that have become exceedingly familiar, perhaps the word “Amen” loses some of its power, precisely because it is used so often. What exactly does the word mean, and where does it come from?
The word “Amen” is Hebrew in its origin. It is a word that has really remained untranslated, for its full meaning proved to be untranslatable. Current attempts at translation leave us with the words “truly” or, in older translations, “verily.” As the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into the Greek language, the “Amen” is almost always translated as “Would that it might be so!” The word is an affirmation of what was said before, a statement of agreement, a personal seal of approval of what has just been uttered.
It is no surprise, then, to see early Christians refer to Jesus himself as humanity’s “Amen” to the mystery of God and creation. So Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians says that “In him (Jesus) all the promises of God are Yes, and in him is the Amen by us to the glory of God.” In other words, as Paul’s poetry describes it, when amazed at all God’s marvelous deeds on our behalf, and wanting to affirm such gifts, we need simply to say the word “Jesus.” He is the final and definitive affirmation, the once-and for-all “Amen” to the wonderful things God has done for us.
One characteristic of our liturgy in the earliest centuries was that the people participated in the sacred rites, not just by listening to the prayers of the priest in silence, but by ratifying those prayers by their acclamations. Using such acclamations was a cherished custom inherited from Jewish synagogue worship, and the “Amen” was the chief among those acclamations, and remains so today. St. Justin, who was writing in the second century, describes how, when the Eucharistic Prayer of the Sunday liturgy is finished, “all the people present give their assent with an ‘Amen!’ ‘Amen’ in Hebrew means ‘So be it!’” In the fourth century St. Jerome would testify that the “Amen” in the Roman churches and basilicas reverberated like a heavenly thunder.
Today we continue to acclaim this great “Amen” at the end of our Eucharistic Prayer. We are amazed, as we express in our Eucharistic Prayer, at all the wonderful things God has done for us in Christ. We, the Church, offer praise and honor to the Father through Christ who is High Priest, with Christ who is really present in the sacrificial memorial, and in Christ who gives himself in the Eucharist to the members of his body. And all of this in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Through him, with him, in him, the Church proclaims, and we sing “Amen!” “Truly!” and “Would that it might be so!”
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)