One of a small number of Hebrew words which have been imported unchanged into the liturgy of the Church
Amen. —The word Amen is one of a small number of Hebrew words which have been imported unchanged into the liturgy of the Church, propter sanctiorem auctoritatem as St. Augustine expresses it, in virtue of an exceptionally sacred example. “So frequent was this Hebrew word in the mouth of Our Savior”, observes the Catechism of the Council of Trent, “that it pleased the Holy Ghost to have it perpetuated in the Church of God“. In point of fact St. Matthew attributes it to Our Lord twenty-eight times, and St. John in its doubled form twenty-six times. As regards the etymology, Amen is a derivative from the Hebrew verb aman (IMO “to strengthen” or “confirm”.
SCRIPTURAL USE.—I. In the Holy Scripture it appears almost invariably as an adverb, and its primary use is to indicate that the speaker adopts for his own what has already been said by another. Thus in Jer., xxviii, 6, the prophet represents himself as answering to Hananias’s prophecy of happier days; “Amen, the Lord perform the words which thou hast prophesied”. And in the imprecations of Dent., xxvii, 14 sqq. we read, for example: “Cursed be he that honoreth not his father and mother, and all the people shall say Amen”. From this, some liturgical use of the word appears to have developed long before the coming of Jesus Christ. Thus we may compare I Paralipomenon, xvi, 36, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from eternity; and let the people say Amen and a hymn to God“, with Ps., cv, 48, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel from everlasting: and let all the people say: so be it” (cf. also II Esdras, viii, 6), these last words in the Septuagint being represented by genoito, genoito, and in the Vulgate, which follows the Septuagint by fiat, fiat; but the Massoretic text gives “Amen, Alleluia“. Talmudic tradition tells us that Amen was not said in the Temple, but only in the synagogues (cf. Edersheim, The Temple, p. 127), but by this we probably ought to understand not that the saying Amen was forbidden in the Temple, but only that the response of the congregation, being delayed until the end for fear of interrupting the exceptional solemnity of the rite, demanded a more extensive and impressive formula than a simple Amen. The familiarity of the usage of saying Amen at the end of all prayers, even before the Christian era, is evidenced by Tobias, ix, 12.—II. A second use of Amen most common in the New Testament, but not quite unknown in the Old, has no reference to the words of any other person, but is simply a form of affirmation or confirmation of the speaker’s own thought, sometimes introducing it, sometimes following it. Its employment as an introductory formula seems to be peculiar to the speeches of Our Savior recorded in the Gospels, and it is noteworthy that, while in the Synoptists one Amen is used, in St. John the word is invariably doubled. (Cf. the double Amen of conclusion in Num., v, 22, etc.) In the Catholic (i.e. the Reims) translation of the Gospels, the Hebrew word is for the most part retained, but in the Protestant “Authorized Version” it is rendered by “Verily”. When Amen is thus used by Our Lord to introduce a statement He seems especially to make a demand upon the faith of His hearers in His word or in His power; e.g. John, viii, 58, “Amen, Amen, I say unto you, before Abraham was made, I am”. In other parts of the New Testament, especially in the Epistles of St. Paul, Amen usually concludes a prayer or a doxology, e.g. Rom., xi, 36, “To Him be glory for ever. Amen.” We also find it sometimes attached to blessings, e.g. Rom., xv, 33, “Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen”; but this usage is much rarer, and in many apparent instances, e.g. all those appealed to by Abbot Cabrol, the Amen is really a later interpolation.—III. Lastly the common practice of concluding any discourse or chapter of a subject with a doxology ending in Amen seems to have led to a third distinctive use of the word in which it appears as nothing more than a formula of conclusion—finis. In the best Greek codices the book of Tobias ends in this way with Amen, and the Vulgate gives it at the end of St. Luke’s Gospel. This seems to be the best explanation of Apoc., iii, 14: “These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness who is the beginning of the creation of God“. The Amen who is also the beginning would thus suggest much the same idea as “I am Alpha and Omega” of Apoc., i, 8, or “The first and the last” of Apoc., ii, 8.
LITURGICAL USE.—The employment of Amen in the synagogues as the people’s answer to a prayer said aloud by a representative must no doubt have been adopted in their own worship by the Christians of the Apostolic age. This at least is the only natural sense in which to interpret the use of the word in I Cor., xiv, 16, “Else if thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that holdeth the place of the unlearned say Amen to thy blessing?” (pos erei to amen epi te se euchariostia) where to amen seems clearly to mean “the customary Amen”. In the beginning, however, its use seems to have been limited to the congregation, who made answer to some public prayer, and it was not spoken by him who offered the prayer (see von der Goltz, Das Gebet in der altesten Christenheit, p. 160). It is perhaps one of the most reliable indications of the early data of the “Didache“, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles“, that, although several short liturgical formulaa are embodied in this document, the word Amen occurs but once, and then in company with the word maranatha, apparently as an ejaculation of the assembly. As regards these liturgical formulae in the “Didache“, which include the Our Father, we may, however, perhaps suppose that the Amen was not written because it was taken for granted that after the doxology those present would answer Amen as a matter of course. Again, in the apocryphal but early “Acta Johannis” (ed. Bonnet, c. xciv, p. 197) we find a series of short prayers spoken by the Saint to which the bystanders regularly answer Amen. But it cannot have been very long before the Amen was in many cases added by the utterer of the prayer. We have a noteworthy instance in the prayer of St. Polycarp at his martyrdom, A.D. 155, on which occasion we are expressly told in a contemporary document that the executioners waited until Polycarp completed his prayer, and “pronounced the word Amen”, before they kindled the fire by which he perished. We may fairly infer from this that before the middle of the second century it had become a familiar practice for one who prayed alone to add Amen by way of conclusion. This usage seems to have developed even in public worship, and in the second half of the fourth century, in the earliest form of the liturgy which affords us any safe data, that of the Apostolic Constitutions, we find that in only three instances is it clearly indicated that Amen is to be said by the congregation (i.e. after the Trisagion, after the “Prayer of Intercession“, and at the reception of Communion); in the eight remaining instances in which Amen occurs, it was said, so far as we can judge, by the bishop himself who offered the prayer. From the lately-discovered Prayer Book of Bishop Serapion, which can be ascribed with certainty to the middle of the fourth century, we should infer that, with certain exceptions as regards the anaphora of the liturgy, every prayer consistently ended in Amen. In many cases no doubt the word was nothing more than a mere formula to mark the conclusion, but the real meaning was never altogether lost sight of. Thus, though St. Augustine and Pseudo-Ambrose may not be quite exact when they interpret Amen as verum est (it is true), they are not very remote from the general sense; and in the Middle Ages, on the other hand, the word is often rendered with perfect accuracy. Thus, in an early “Expositio Miss” published by Gerbert (Mon. Lit. Alem, II, 276), we read: “Amen is a ratification by the people of what has been spoken, and it may be interpreted in our language as if they all said: May it so be done as the priest has prayed”.
General as was the use of the Amen as a conclusion, there were for a long time certain liturgical formulae to which it was not added. It does not for the most part occur at the end of the early creeds, and a Decree of the Congregation of Rites (n. 3014, June 9, 1853) has decided that it should not be spoken at the end of the form for the administration of baptism, where indeed it would be meaningless. On the other hand, in the Churches of the East Amen is still commonly said after the form of baptism, sometimes by the bystanders, sometimes by the priest himself. In the prayers of exorcism it is the person exorcised who is expected to say “Amen”, and in the conferring of sacred orders, when the vestments, etc., are given to the candidate by the bishop with some prayer of benediction, it is again the candidate who responds, just as in the solemn blessing of the Mass the people answer in the person of the server. Still we cannot say that any uniform principle governs liturgical usage in this matter, for when at a High Mass the celebrant blesses the deacon before the latter goes to read the Gospel, it is the priest himself who says Amen. Similarly in the Sacrament of Penance and in the Sacrament of Extreme Unction it is the priest who adds Amen after the essential words of the sacramental form, although in the Sacrament of Confirmation this is done by the assistants. Further, it may be noticed that in past centuries certain local rites seem to have shown an extraordinary predilection for the use of the word Amen. In the Mozarabic ritual, for example, not only is it inserted after each clause of the long episcopal benediction, but it was repeated after each petition of the Pater Noster. A similar exaggeration may be found in various portions of the Coptic Liturgy.
Two special instances of the use of Amen seem to call for separate treatment. The first is the Amen formerly spoken by the people at the close of the great Prayer of Consecration in the liturgy. The second is that which was uttered by each of the faithful when he received the Body and Blood of Christ. (I) Amen after the Consecration.—With regard to what we have ventured to call the “great Prayer of Consecration” a few words of explanation are necessary. There can be no doubt that by the Christians of the earlier ages of the Church the precise moment of the conversion of the bread and wine upon the altar into the Body and Blood of Christ was not so clearly apprehended as it is now by us. They were satisfied to believe that the change was wrought in the course of a long “prayer of thanksgiving” (eucharistia), a prayer made up of several elements—preface, recitation of the words of institution, memento for living and dead, invocation of the Holy Ghost, etc.—which prayer they nevertheless conceived of as one “action” or consecration, to which, after a doxology, they responded by a solemn Amen. For a more detailed account of this aspect of the liturgy the reader must be referred to the article Epiklesis. It must be sufficient to say here that the essential unity of the great Prayer of Consecration is very clearly brought before us in the account of St. Justin Martyr (A.D. 151) who, describing the Christian liturgy, says: “As soon as the common prayers are ended and they (the Christians) have saluted one another with a kiss, bread and wine and water are brought to the president, who receiving them gives praise to the Father of all things by the Son and Holy Spirit and makes a long thanksgiving [eucharistian epi polu] for the blessings which He has vouchsafed to bestow upon them, and when he has ended the prayers and thanksgiving, all the people that are present forthwith answer with acclamation `Amen'”. (Justin, I Apol., lxv, P.G., VI, 428). The existing liturgies both of the East and the West clearly bear witness to this primitive arrangement. In the Roman Liturgy the great consecrating prayer, or “action”, of the Mass ends with the solemn doxology and Amen which immediately precede the Pater Noster. The other Amens which are found between the Preface and the Pater Noster can easily be shown to be relatively late additions. The Eastern liturgies also contain Amens similarly interpolated, and in particular the Amens which in several Oriental rites are spoken immediately after the words of Institution, are not primitive. It may be noted that at the end of the seventeenth century the question of Amens in the Canon of the Mass acquired an adventitious importance on account of the controversy between Dom Claude de Vert and Pere Lebrun regarding the secrecy of the Canon. It is now commonly admitted that in the primitive liturgies the words of the Canon were spoken aloud so as to be heard by the people. For some reason, the explanation of which is not obvious, the Amen immediately before the Pater Noster is omitted in the solemn Mass celebrated by the Pope on Easter day. (2) Amen after Communion.—The Amen which in many liturgies is spoken by the faithful at the moment of receiving Holy Communion may also be traced back to primitive usage. The Pontificale Romanum still prescribes that at the ordination of clerics and on other similar occasions the newly-ordained in receiving Communion should kiss the bishop’s hand and answer Amen when the bishop says to them: “May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ keep thy soul unto everlasting life” (Corpus Domini, etc.). It is curious that in the lately-discovered Latin life of St. Melania the Younger, of the early fifth century, we are told how the Saint in receiving Communion before death answered Amen and kissed the hand of the bishop who had brought it (see Cardinal Rampolla, Santa Melania Giuniore, 1905, p. 257). But the practice of answering Amen is older than this. It appears in the Canons of Hippolytus (No. 146) and in the Egyptian Church Order (p. 101). Further, Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., VI, xliii) tells a story of the heretic Novatian (c. 250), how, at the time of Communion, instead of Amen he made the people say “I will not go back to Pope Cornelius“. Also we have evidently an echo of the same practice in the Acts of St. Perpetua, A.D. 202 (Armitage Robinson, St. Perpetua, pp. 68, 80), and probably in Tertullian‘s phrase about the Christian profaning in the amphitheatre the lips with which he had spoken Amen to greet the All-Holy (De Spect., xxv). But nearly all the Fathers supply illustrations of the practice, notably St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Catech., v, 18, P.G., XXIII, 1125).
OTHER USES.—Finally, we may note that the word Amen occurs not infrequently in early Christian inscriptions, and that it was often introduced into anathemas and gnostic spells. Moreover, as the Greek letters which form Amen according to their numerical values total 99 (a=1, m=40, e =8, n=50), this number often appears in inscriptions, especially of Egyptian origin, and a sort of magical efficacy seems to have been attributed to its symbol. It should also be mentioned that the word Amen is still employed in the ritual both of Jews and Mohammedans.