“Amen” – Its Meaning is not What You Think

Editor’s Note: Reflection on the Mass readings for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) –  Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalms 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35. This series usually appears each Wednesday.

Photography © by Andy Coan

Pentecostal preachers shout it. Monks chant it. Most Christians end every prayer with it. But what does “Amen” really mean? Is it just a pious way to “log off” our dialogue with God?

Actually, most of us have never heard the origins of this word that we use so glibly. But we need to examine it now, since its significance strikes at the heart of what God is saying to us through this Sunday’s readings.

Amen is not originally an English word, or even a Greek word, though it appears frequently in the Greek New Testament. It is a Hebrew term, and is associated with a very particular image in that language. Amen is related to the Hebrew word for “rock.” It does not so much mean “I agree” but rather “it is firm, like a rock.” In other words, “it is reliable, it is sure, it is solid, and I can stand on it.” The “It” of course, is God Himself, who is often called a Rock in the Old Testament (see Psalms 18 and 144) and a cornerstone in the New. But the “It” is also whatever He has said, whatever he has revealed. His truth is reliable; we can and must stand on it.

This implies, of course, that we are not just to accept God’s truth intellectually, but to build our life around it, to let our future depend on it, to make sure our actions flow from it. It implies that true biblical faith involves placing our trust in God and committing ourselves to living out what we claim to be our convictions.

That is precisely the point made by the epistle of James. It is not that you have to add works to faith to be saved. It is that faith that fails to issue in changed lives is not true faith at all.  It is, in fact, bogus faith – an illusion. If you say “Good luck, God bless, I’m praying for you!” to someone and do nothing more to meet that person’s urgent bodily needs, your words are phony. If you talk the talk of faith and fail to walk the walk, what you are about is not faith but religious posturing. That is precisely Jesus’ assessment of the Pharisees.

At Caesarea Philippi, Peter blurts out that Jesus is the Messiah. What happens next in the story proves that what he said flowed from a special inspiration (as Matthew 16 notes), not from his own rock-solid faith. For no sooner does Peter confess Jesus as Messiah than he proceeds to tell Jesus what sort of Messiah he ought to be. In other words, Jesus’ revelation of himself as a suffering servant, a Messiah who would save his people by laying down his life for them, did not quite suit Peter. The consequences of being the chief disciple of an executed criminal might not be especially pleasant. So he disputes the words of the one he had just called Messiah, God’s anointed representative. So his profession was accurate, but did not spring from solid faith. He did not say to Jesus, “you words are certain – I can and will stake my life on them” but rather, “Come on Lord, you must be joking.”

How does Jesus respond? The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 50 “sets his face like flint.” His sights are set on Calvary and his purpose is rock-solid–nothing will deter him. And Peter? You know what happens when the cock crows.

Peter (the name means “rock”) eventually comes around. At Pentecost he receives the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit and his wavering belief is transformed into the virtue of authentic faith. He sets his face like flint towards his own Calvary, a hill in Rome where Nero amused himself through the suffering of others, a hill called the Vatican.

We’ve already received that same power in baptism and confirmation, and it is renewed in every Eucharist. So when we say “Amen,” do we mean it?

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118. This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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