The Great Amen: Understanding the sanctuary and celebration

This post is part of a series on understanding the physical, sensorial and spiritual elements of our sanctuary and celebration. Today we will take a closer look into the Great Amen.

As a young girl I sang in our church’s youth choir. I am grateful to our director for always explaining how our ministry supported the celebration. I remember clearly the day she told us that the Great Amen was the most important thing we lead the congregation in each week. It seemed crazy, it was only one word, often sung as second nature. It was definitely an easy part of mass to miss. I had some investigating to do to figure out why it was so important.

I am excited to share the results of my research on the most important sung element of the service, the Great Amen.

The Great Amen: Understanding the sanctuary and celebration

What is it?

If our service was split into two main pieces first you would have the liturgy of the word and then the Eucharistic celebration. Each has a rhythmic pattern with a mixture of sung and spoken pieces, and each has an element, often sung, that acts as the climax of their respective parts of the mass, the Alleluia and Amen. Both short sweet and universal, in this post we will investigate the later.

The Great Amen, is a simple, but powerful response sung toward the end of the Eucharistic prayer and paired with the Doxology of the Eucharist. Sometimes it is sung or spoken as one word, but often 5-10 times in a row. During the Easter season, it can be sung as a chorus of alleluias and amens together. I love this grand moment during the service, especially when it is harmonized by a loud off key toddler chorus.

Take a closer look

What is happening directly before the great amen? 

With simple observation, we see that directly before the Amen the priest holds up the accidents of bread and wine and sings or says,

“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, forever and ever.”

Liturgically this is called the doxology of the Eucharist. A doxology is a Greek word that means “a word of praise”.

The Great Amen: Understanding the sanctuary and celebration

How does this Great Amen relate to the bigger prayer?

The Great Amen is the end of the Eucharistic prayer. To understand what our Amen truly means, let’s breakdown this prayer that has been apart of church history for thousands of years. The Eucharistic prayer by definition means thanksgiving and is a prayer of sanctification, a means by which we, as a church family, receive grace.

The Eucharistic prayer begins with a prayer of thanksgiving and an invitation to unite together and with Christ. Then the entire congregation join the angels in Heaven by singing the Sanctus, “holy, holy, holy”. After, as we all knell, the congregation with the priest ask for God’s power through the Holy Spirit to consecrate the bread and wine, that they may become the body and blood of Christ, often called the Epiclesis.

After this, we remember the first celebration of the sacrament, as the priest repeats the words of Jesus during the last super. Then as a community we remember what Christ has done as we sing or say one of the three proclamations of the mystery of faith.

Next, as a church, we commend ourselves and the sacrament back to God, and offer our intentions knowing that grace for all things flows from Jesus’ body and blood.

The priest and congregation finishes the Eucharistic prayer by proclaiming the glory of all things to the Trinity, with the doxology of the Eucharist, mentioned above. And the congregation responds in affirmation with a full and proud “Amen!”

New Advent asserts the first written history of this concluding prayer is 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 poly) 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'”.

The Great Amen: Understanding the sanctuary and celebration
What does “amen” mean? 

Amen is a Hebrew word derived from the verb aman “to strengthen” or “confirm”. It is commonly understood to means yes, I agree, I believe, or so be it (CCC, 2856). We find it used throughout scripture and the liturgy. Jesus uses the saying over fifty times in the four gospels, typically translated “Truly (truly), I say to you”, as a way for Jesus to emphasis the significance or truth of the statement.

Paul explains in the first letter to the Corinthians, “all the promises of God find their Yes in him [Christ]. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God” (1:20). Explaining that in our communion with Jesus, we say yes to the fullness of God’s promises, the truth he has offered to us throughout history, and then offer ourselves back to him.

Amen can both be a term of agreement and a statement of truth. As we proclaim amen, at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, we join together with the entire congregation, and the entire universal church, to say yes, I believe this is the son of God, I choose all of God’s promises through the grace of Christ, and all glory and honor belongs to him.

The repetitive singing of the word amen can be an effort to offer a strong and almost unending agreement with the Eucharistic prayer.

What does this mean for me?

Jesus is present to us throughout our everyday and in many forms throughout the service, in the scripture, the congregation, and the prisider, but the Eucharist is a moment and continuation of incarnation, Christ physically present with us. The Eucharistic prayer invites Jesus, the God man, to physically dwell with us. To have heaven here on earth. As a congregation we fall on our knees and offer our Great Amen at the table of the universal church, united in creed and table, undivided by nation or death. An Amen that is both rejoicing in the celebration and crying out in our need for Christ.

The Great Amen: Understanding the sanctuary and celebration

It is easy to be distracted at different points during the service, by physical things like squirmy children or aching knees and by mental things like questions for God or the looming grocery list. We may miss a phrase, moment, prayer, or piece here and there, but we can with this amen affirm our desire to be present before the lord and our acceptance of all of God’s promises through Christ. We can offer an earnest and faithful amen, knowing God will fill in the gaps. We can use this Amen to refocus on the presence of Christ at our table. Even our little Anna refocuses her attention in that moment as the piano crescendos and the voice of the congregation is lifted up.

So we have done some research, now it is time to go and mean our amen. To kneel in that moment combining the will and knowledge of our mind with the sincerity of our heart to offer a true Amen. The most important song the choir will lead you in on Sunday.

Check out the other posts in this series.


The Salt Stories: Understanding the sanctuary and celebration

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