"Can I get an amen?" That is a question that was often asked during the homilies of our former pastor--then Monsignor David Talley. Talley, who is now the Bishop of the Diocese of Memphis, Tennessee, was raised in the Southern Baptist faith tradition, where such appeals are more common.
The word amen is used in all major faith traditions, and like words such as Alleluia and Hosanna, amen is never translated into another language. The word is believed to have its roots in Hebrew and means certainty or truth. Found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, it was used to express agreement or affirmation.
A more unusual translation of amen is said to be found in the story of the Israelites who wandered in the desert for 40 years as they journeyed to the Promised Land. Desert conditions made travel tricky and unreliable. Travelers were vulnerable to heat, cold and violent wind storms. They had to find the right piece of soil in which to drive their tent pegs. When they found that solid place in which to anchor their tent, they could be assured of shelter and protection from the elements. For the Israelites, the place where they placed their tent pegs was a matter of life and death. The word amen came to mean, “Now that I can drive my tent peg into.” In other words, “That is the place where I can anchor my life,” or, “I believe it to be so.”
Amen isn’t only found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It appears in the New Testament as well and was often used by Jesus to teach a lesson. “Amen, I say to you …” could be translated as, “Truly, I say to you …” The word was adapted for use in the early Church and remains a regular part of our current liturgies. We say the word amen many times at Mass, usually at the end of a greeting or a prayer. But there is one amen that stands above the rest and takes place at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. After the priest says or sings the doxology, “Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever,” the people respond with what is supposed to be a rousing “Amen.” This is often called the great “Amen” perhaps because it follows the great prayer of thanksgiving.
Because we say the word so often, we can take it for granted, and our response can become lackluster. If we consider the meaning as interpreted by the story of the Israelites, we can note several parallels. We too, like the Israelites, are on a journey to the Promised Land. We too encounter harsh conditions and challenges. We too need to be able to anchor our lives on solid ground.
The Eucharistic Prayer reminds that we do well to stake our lives on Jesus who died and rose and remains with us until the end of time. That’s why the doxology that follows the Eucharistic Prayer beckons a one-word response. Can I get an amen?