Friday the thirteenth – the most feared day and date in history.
The fateful Friday can create a real panic. Some 20 million people in the U.S. suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia, specifically, or triskaidekaphobia, more generally. This year, given the state of affairs arising from the coronavirus pandemic, the dread may be exacerbated this year.
But that first number among the teens has always conjured concern. Hotel elevators skip the thirteenth floor. Airlines have no thirteenth aisle. When it falls on a Friday, businesses reportedly lose $800-900 million.
No doubt, social media will raise numerous qualms, with posts and pics fueling the superstitions that prey on otherwise sensible people. No one will want to see a black cat.
Some suggest that this fear can be linked to the Last Supper, supposing that Judas, the betrayer, was the thirteenth person to sit at the table. Others seek to connect it to lunar cults, Babylonian codes, Mayan calendars, or the Knights Templar. No one really knows the origin.
But that’s how omens work. They play on the imagination of forces beyond our control. Compounded by the confluence of simple coincidences, they suggest that some supernatural power has it out for us. Prophets of doom then proclaim our powerlessness and warn of impending consequences.
Even without that transcendental dimension, recourse to omens reflects the wavering spirit endemic to being human. Amid the ups and downs of life, we can easily fixate on fate to explain why things don’t go our way. Contriving a “reason” to worry affords some sense of manageability. Knowing what to avoid on that dreadful date supposedly keeps us safe.
Notwithstanding the mythological menace of omens like Friday the thirteenth, they do suggest something true about our lives. They remind us that, try as we might, we are not the masters of our universe.
Recognizing this basic spiritual truth, people of faith respond differently. Instead of pointing to an omen, they respond with an “amen.” Instead of fearing supernatural power, they embrace it.
Prevalent in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worship, “amen” affirms and confirms religious belief. Most often used as a conclusion to prayer, “amen” is usually left untranslated, thereby conveying a verbal sacrality upon the soulful utterance to God – “may it be so.”
An “amen” functions rather differently compared to an omen. Bad omens evoke a passive sense of resignation before cosmic powers perceived to be beyond our control. On a Friday the thirteenth, unable to avoid the coincidence of the calendar, we are left to fend off the bad luck that inevitably awaits us.
The “amen,” by contrast, is both proclamation and affirmation. Giving voice to the choice of the person saying it, “amen” actively pronounces a personal faith in divine providence, in the recognition that things beyond human control nevertheless remain within the control of the God into whose saving hands believers commend their lives.
Though rarely, if ever, speaking the word in conversation, Catholics make this affirmation quite often. Whether said or sung, “amen” rings out in Catholic churches eight times every Sunday.
“Amen” is the congregation’s first word, in response to making the sign of the cross at the beginning of Mass, and its next to last response when that same sign is invoked as a blessing at the end of Mass.
An “amen” affirms what is spoken by the celebrant in the orations that “collect” the prayers of the congregation in the introductory rite, after preparing the gifts, and following the Communion rite.
A “great amen” culminates the memorializing of salvation history in the performative language of the Eucharistic Prayer.
Another “amen” confirms what is said by all in the Lord’s Prayer, as this leads into a divine doxology and plea for peace.
And “amen” is the proper response each person makes to the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ in holy Communion.
In each instance, “amen” affirms a central dimension of Christian faith: the sign of the cross, the work of the Trinity, the narrative of salvation, the power of prayer, and the real presence of Jesus.
In turn, “amen” confirms each believer’s decision to entrust this topsy-turvy existence of ours into the good hands of a merciful God above.
So, be not afraid this Friday or any day of the week. Even if the unexpected happens, or bad luck seems to prevail, “amen” offers an eternal antidote to the fear of omens.
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Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S., is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Malvern.
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