March 23, 2018

The Doxology & Amen: The Great Amen


The Doxology & Amen: The Great Amen

 

In my own vision of Christian history, it seems to me that the children of God have spent a good deal of their time competing on how best to praise God. Even before there was Christian worship, when we look at the Psalms, Father Felix Just, SJ notes that “The common division into five separate ‘books’ of Psalms is based on the concluding doxologies and/or ‘amens’ found in 41:14; 72:18-20; 89:53; 106:48; and the entirety of Ps 150.”

In my blog on the Glory to God (Gloria in Excelsis Deo), I referred to the Glory to God as a doxology from the Greek words for ‘praise’ and ‘word’. It is called the Greater Doxology to distinguish it from the Glory be (gloria patri) prayer. But here, at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, comes a specific eucharistic doxology, and so it seems worth our time to think about this form of praise in general, before we see how it is applied at this point in the Catholic Mass. Doxologies are often addressed to God, such as the Te Deum and the Divine Praises. But they can also be addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as seen in the prayer attributed to Saint Ephrem the Syriac that begins, “O pure and immaculate and likewise blessed Virgin, who art the sinless Mother of thy Son, the mighty Lord of the universe, thou who art inviolate and altogether holy, the hope of the hopeless and sinful, we sing thy praises….”

Variations of the Doxology

The form of the doxology varies widely, so let’s spend some time looking at one of them that might help us better understand the form in the Eucharistic Prayer. Especially among mainline Protestant communities, the hymn style doxology written by Anglican Bishop Thomas Ken is well known:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise him all creatures here below
Praise him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father Son and Holy Ghost
 

As a hymn writer, he clearly touched millions, as this composition is listed as one of the central moments in the golden age of hymns — placing bishop Ken with luminaries such as Isaac Watts. This composition, now in the public domain, was originally the last verse of Awake My Soul. But it is now used independently as a final blessing in many services; or as an evening hymn; or even a morning hymn; and as a final doxology for hymns like All People that on Earth Do Dwell. In all of these cases it is sung to the tune written by Louis Bourgeois. In the African-American tradition, it is also well known, but is usually sung to a different tune. Bishop Ken, who according to James D. Smith III was orphaned at an early age, was one of the scholars of Winchester college, and so a creature of his time. While a favorite of King Charles II, he was one of seven bishops who refused to publish the Declaration of Indulgence of King James II — in part because it gave comfort to the Roman Catholic Church.

In any case, this hymn-form of the doxology, perhaps with the exception of Amazing Grace, could be the most-used hymn in all of church music. It is certainly the most popular doxology, to the point that contemporary Christian artist Phil Wickham simply names his version as “Doxology and Amen.” It has also become a staple of liturgical music. The website Hymnary.org cites 825 hymnals which include the text. The New Century Hymnal rewrites the text as a praise to God naming each member of the Trinity. Voices United: The Hymn and Worship Book of The United Church of Canada‎, makes the text inclusive and includes versions in French, Chinese, Cree, Mohawk, Korean, Japenese and Spanish. While Common Praise, an Anglican hymnal, simply calls it “Doxology” and offers three inclusive language alternatives in French and English, in addition to the original text. So as we turn to the doxology/amen grouping which functions as a kind of concluding rite to the Eucharistic Prayer, accompanied by the elevation of the elements, we need to be clear that the notion of a doxology is deeply engrained in Christian worship, and needs to be integral to our common praise.

Doxology in the Roman Missal

The text of the doxology in the current English and Latin versions of the Roman Missal runs as follows:

 

  1. Per ipsum et cum ipso et in ipso
  2. est tibi Deo Patri omnipotenti,
  3. in unitate Spritus Sancti,
  4. omnis honor et gloria,
  5. per omnia sæcula sæculorum.

 

 

  1. Through him, and with him, and in him,
  2. O God, almighty Father,
  3. in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
  4. all glory and honor is yours,
  5. for ever and ever.

 

The translation is pretty close, with only the verb structure – est tibi (it is for you) moved from the second line to the fifth, and the rather boring for ever and ever used to translate “for all the ages of ages” (per omnia saecula saeculorum). Just to be clear, the ‘him’ in the prayer is Christ the Son. It is Jesus Christ’s sacrifice that we celebrate, and so in a development of the institution narrative, it is through, with and in Christ that we honor the God we praise. It is an ongoing celebration of the Easter season, all year long.

Just as in the Penitential Rite, when we say, “Christ, have mercy,” not “God, have mercy,” our praise to the Father is tightly associated with the paschal mystery — along with the notion that while fully human, Jesus was also God, our savior Christ. This form of praise sums up the timeless truths that all praise is to the Father, the Son and bound by the unity of the Holy Spirit. It is an awesome thing.

It is so awesome, that in the ‘70s it became a custom in some places for the congregation and the priest to sing the doxology. But this attempt to increase the participation of the faithful meant that the ‘amen’ became less powerful than the people’s response. That is why this custom has pretty much faded away in lieu of having a more powerful amen.

Amen

The Doxology and other prayers

Since the doxology is a powerful statement of faith, a miniature of the Apostles Creed, it seems to cry out for a response. But in the history of Gregorian chant, the ‘amen’ at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer never had the same importance as the Kyrie Eleison, Nicene Creed, Holy Holy or Lamb of God. Before the reform of the liturgy and the celebration in English translation, the Amen and the Lord’s Prayer were not part of the Mass setting, since they were not recited or sung by the congregation with the priest. But rather, even today at high Mass in the Extraordinary form, often the priest sings these alone.

The Great Amen and incorporation of the Doxology

The term ‘Great Amen’ is no longer in common use and is not in the Roman Missal. The amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, and at the culmination of the doxology should really be a special occasion for praise within the Mass. The ‘amen’ in this case is not just an affirmation of faith, it is likewise a way to say, “Praise God our Savior!” or “Praise you God!”

So how should pastoral musicians and priests work together as worship leaders to make this moment a strong experience of the power of the holy? Singing the doxology and “amen, amen, amen” can be a wonderful transition into the Communion Rite, with the Lord’s Prayer and the Sign of Peace, just as the transition into the Liturgy of the Word is aided by the Glory to God (Gloria in Excelsis Deo).

Glenn CJ Byer
Glenn CJ Byer

Glenn CJ Byer has written widely on the liturgy, including articles on the meaning of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, marriage preparation, the renovation of churches and the anointing of the sick. He speaks widely on the role of lay ministers in the Mass.

This blog series is intended to provide a more in-depth look at the various sung parts of the Mass—their origin, history, current usage, etc. Explore more from this series:

 

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