We are such a gracious and polite society. When someone sneezes, we are so quick to say, “God bless you!” And when a person extends a simple act of kindness toward us, we automatically respond with a courteous thank you or you’re welcome. Most of us even still remember to say please when requesting a favor of someone. But as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharistic, I am amazed that while people have such good intentions and mannerisms, why is it that so many of us neglect to use the word, “amen” when receiving Holy Communion? The only conclusion I have been able to surmise is that many Catholics do not realize the purpose or significance of this powerful, little word.
Webster defines the word “amen” to mean: may it be so; so it is!; used after a prayer or to express approval. But it goes much deeper than this when applied to Catholic teaching. Beginning in the Old Testament, (Nm 5:22, DT 27:15-26, Jer. 28:6) amen was used as an assent to an administered oath, curse or blessing.
Among the Hebrews, the word was used to affirm that whatever was being said was trustworthy and that the person wholeheartedly agreed with the statement. And when ratifying a particular prayer or doxology, the word was often doubled, as at the closing of the first three divisions of Psalters in the book of Psalms (41, 72, 89).
Recorded throughout the gospel of John, Jesus Himself used this particular double ratification as an introduction that what He was about to speak was of absolute certainty and Divine Authority: “Amen, amen, I say to you…”.
It would later be used in the epistles to conclude private petitions and doxology as an affirmation of the truth in Christ’s teachings. (Rom, Tim, Heb, Phi, Jud). And in Revelations, St. John sees a multitude of angels and living creatures, countless in number, praising the Lamb that was slain: “blessing, glory, honor and might forever and ever”. The response heard, as an assertion of their adoration to the Lord, is “Amen.” (Rev 5:14)
But today, if spoken at all, the word amen sometimes seems to roll off the tongue at the conclusion of the sign of the cross and prayers as though it were merely a rote recitation, rather than an affirmation of the absolute belief that it was intended to signify.
The Great Amen, which is said at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Eucharist is said to be the most profound prayer recited by the congregation in the entire participation of the Mass. When we speak this single word, we are professing our belief in the Consecration and the Presence of Christ on the altar.
It is our loving expression of praise to the Holy Trinity, our Blessed Mother, the apostles and the saints. We advocate to God, all the prayers that the priest has offered for our sakes and those of the deceased and suffering. In one word, we manifest our faith more assuredly than any other prayer spoken.
The action of responding with the word “amen”, during the celebration of the Eucharist can be traced to the time of St. Justin Martyr when he explained the Christian Rite to the pagan emperor Antoninus Pius in the year 155 AD. He wrote:
“On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things. Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves . . .and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to the commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation. When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss. Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek: eucharistian) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts. When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: ‘Amen’.’” (CCC 1345)
It is breathtaking to realize how closely our current celebration of the Mass reflects the actions during the early apostolic era. And it is equally important to understand how profound the words we use at Mass really are!
When we come forward to receive Holy Communion, the Host and Chalice are offered with the words, “The Body of Christ” or “The Blood of Christ”. When we respond “Amen”, we are telling Jesus, that yes! we fully believe it is Him that we are about to receive, truly and fully present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
So what does it mean if we don’t answer with an Amen? What message are we sending to the little ones around us who are coming forward to receive this most beautiful Sacrament? Worse yet, what message are we not sending to God?
I would like to imagine that some people at least say “amen” silently to themselves, but that is somewhat like the minister of Holy Communion simply handing out the Host without saying a word. Just as we profess the Creed aloud and in unison, we should proudly affirm our faith to each other as one Body and Spirit in Christ. St. Augustine wrote that “If you are the body and members of Christ, then it is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your sacrament that you receive. To that which you are, you respond Amen (yes, it is true) and by responding to it, you assent to it.”
During Holy Communion, I have been privileged to witness some of the most beautiful expressions of devotion to Christ; moments which I cherish with all my heart. Some people approach with tears in their eyes, heads bowed, genuflecting and literally trembling as they receive the Sacred Host, whispering “amen” with the utmost display of reverence and love.
In contrast, it is equally disheartening that so many others do not utter this simple, yet all encompassing expression of their belief in Our Lord. Some have smiled politely and said “thank you” or “God bless you”, which may be quite congenial, but receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ has absolutely nothing to do with good manners! It does, however, have absolutely everything to do with our beautiful Catholic Faith – which we confirm with sincerity and true conviction when we lift up our eyes to receive the Sacred Host and tell Him simply, Amen! What’s in a word? Everything!
©Debi Vinnedge. All Rights Reserved.