Sunday, 4 June 2017

Why Say `Amen'?

From "The Pilot", 1968 comes this, an interesting historical ramble.

Some Church Customs Explained
By S.G. Thicknesse

Why Say `Amen'?

St Augustine of Hippo is said to have commented on the fact that `neither Latin nor barbarian has ventured to translate, from the sacred tongue into his own,' the words Amen and Alleluia. `In all lands,' he said, `the mystic sound of the Hebrew is heard.' Even the name of Jesus has reached us in its Greek form, not in the Hebrew Joshua, or in the Jeshu of the Galilean dialect.

Christians had not only preserved the Hebrew words of Amen and Alleluia, but seem also to have kept closely to their ancient sense. From the days of Moses, Amen ('So be it') had been the formula of corroboration or acquiescence by which the people acknowledged their responsibility: for example, in the keeping of laws (Deut. xxvii).

Later, it became customary for the people to say Amen after the public benediction in the synagogue. For the first Christians in Jerusalem it must have been almost instinctive to say Amen after the words of the consecration of the Bread and Wine.

St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (xiv. 8-16) seems to show that they did so from the very beginning. He is urging every Christian minister to speak intelligibly, when he shall `bless with the spirit', that is, consecrate the elements, `Else ... how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks [i.e. at the Eucharist], seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?'

Later still, St. Jerome was to hear the thundering sound of this Amen in a Roman congregation. Indeed, this was considered to be so significant that in the fourth century the Emperor Justinian issued an edict against the silent saying of the words of consecration by priests, as this prevented congregations from taking their part by saying Amen.

At least from the third century, too, every communicant said Amen to the words with which the Bread and Wine were administered to him by the priest. Among all the proper and traditional Amens preserved by the Book of Common Prayer-as at the end of doxology, creed, and benediction-this Amen of the communicant is alone omitted.

As though to compensate, English hymnologists, and well-meaning but unwary congregations, have often added Amens when they have neither traditional place nor meaning.


No doubt the exactness of its sound-at once a shout of praise and a battle-cry-has kept Alleluia to its traditional use down so many centuries.

It was as a battle-cry that St. Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, wielded it with such effect in A.D. 449, when he rallied the Christian Britons to the `Alleluia victory' over marauding Picts and Saxons.

A century before, Sidonius Apollinaris, poet and bishop, claimed to have heard Alleluia chanted by riverside haulers, to keep them in time together.

Anciently among the Jews the cry `Hallelujah' ('Praise ye Jehovah') had formed the keynote of the six psalms of praise (cxiii-cxviii), the `Hallel', which was notably sung at the three great rejoicing festivals of the Passover, of the Feast of Weeks, and of the Feast of Tabernacles, or Ingathering. These Hallelujahs were transferred by the early Christians with a new sense of triumph, to celebrate the victory of the Paschal Lamb.

By the time of St. Augustine this custom had spread from Jerusalem to all the churches. Even when the Alleluia became proper for all seasons except that between Septuagesima and Holy Saturday, it still kept its especial prominence from Easter to Whitsun.

In the first Prayer Book of Edward VI the proper reply to the versicle `Praise ye the Lord' before the psalms of Matins and Evensong was `Alleluia' except during Lent. It was only the Restoration Prayer Book of Charles II which substituted the English version of the reply, `The Lord's Name be praised'.

But there is a third Hebrew word which has never lost its place, although St. Augustine did not mention it, and the Prayer Book, since 1552, has omitted it. This is Hosannah, or Osannah, the Hebrew `O Save!' historically connected with the Feast of Tabernacles. This favourite Jewish festival recalls Israel's delivery out of Egypt, and God's gift of harvest and the promise of the Messiah.

Because the people used to wave the green branches they had brought to the temple in the great final `Hosannah' procession, the name Hosannah became popularly attached to such branches. But it was a strange time of year when the people, excitedly cutting down boughs, stirred the familiar cry round Jesus going up to Jerusalem.

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