17 January 2018

Joy Like Swords: The video of my lecture

When I was studying in Rome, something came across my Facebook feed claiming the desk at which J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and illustrated all of The Hobbit and some of The Lord of the Rings was in Illinois. I am not in the habit of taking click bait, but this was one I could not pass up, a click that introduced me to the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois.

Yesterday afternoon, I had the great and distinct privilege to present a lecture at the Wade Center, a research library dedicated to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the other Inklings with whom they wrote. The title of my lecture was ""Joy Like Swords': Hobbits, Franciscans, and the Crucifix," the video of which I am happy to share with you today:

I am delighted to say it was well received by the audience in Wheaton, and I hope you will enjoy it, too.

15 January 2018

Homily - 14 January 2018 - The Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

There are many factors parents consider when choosing a name for their child. They will often look for a name that has been used in one or both of their families, a name currently popular, or a name to help their child stand out. Some parents even investigate the origins and meanings of names and choose one they think best. And then, before they know it, Jesus may come along and change the name they have chosen for ever, as happened with Simon.

We might say God has something of a habit of changing names: Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel. When Jesus encountered Simon, which means “obedient,” he changed his name to Peter, which means “recognizing.”[1] The Lord, of course, did not change everyone’s name in this way, but only some of those who were to play a particular and pivotal role in salvation history.

In an age of ever-increasing self-absorption, we might be tempted to wish the Lord changed our names – particularly if we do not like the name we were given – because we forget he has already give us a new name, or, if you will, a series of them. Because we have all been baptized into his Death and Resurrection, “now we all have one name, that which is greater than any. We are called ‘Christians,’ and ‘sons of God,’ and ‘friends’ and [his] ‘body.’”[2] If, then, the name we have is that of Christian, we must know what this name we have been given means.

Saint Augustine addressed these words to his flock in the north African city of Hippo on the anniversary of his ordination: “For you I am a bishop, but with you I am, after all, a Christian. The former signifies an office undertaken, the latter, grace; the former is a name for danger, the latter a name for salvation.” We often think being a Christian is about a moral code, about not doing this or that, but to be a Christian is really about salvation; if we do not realize we need a Savior to rescue us from sin and death, if we do not know ourselves to be sinners, we cannot know what it means to be a Christian.

In each of the readings Mother Church proclaims to us today, it is not difficult to see that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with a new event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”[3] This new horizon can only be seen, this new decisive direction can only be followed, to the extent that we remain in an ongoing encounter with Christ Jesus, to the extent that we allow him to look upon us and on every aspect of our lives, to the extent that we hear and follow his invitation, “Come, and you will see” (John 1:39).

There is a great danger for us to allow this encounter with Christ to be one that is simply in the past. Pope Francis expressed this danger in these words:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.[4]

This is why he encourages
all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord” (Blessed Pope Paul VI, Gaudete in Domino, 22).[5]
It is an invitation I make to you, as well.

Those two disciples watched Jesus walk by, intrigued by something they saw in him. They followed him to learn more about him, which led them to stay with him. In him, they knew they had found their salvation, and so they brought others to him that the joy of salvation might be in them, as well. As it was with them, so must it be with us.

We like to think it was easy for those two disciples to leave everything behind to follow Jesus, to stay with him, and to bring others to him. They heard his words, we think, they saw his face, they witnessed his miracles. All of this is true, but they still had to “leave behind their own narrow agenda and their notions of self-fulfillment in order to immerse themselves in another will, the will of God, and to be guided by it.” This was not easy then, and “it is no less challenging to follow Christ today. It means learning to keep our gaze fixed on Jesus, growing close to him, listening to his word and encountering him in the sacraments; it means learning to conform our will to his.”[6]

If we are, then, to live up to the name we have received, if we are to truly be Christians, to live as members of his Body, one in mind and heart, each one of us must help each other

to grow into a genuine and affectionate friendship with the Lord, cultivated through personal and liturgical prayer; to grow in familiarity with the sacred Scriptures and thus to listen attentively and fruitfully to the word of God; to understand that entering into God’s will does not crush or destroy a person, but instead leads to the discovery of the deepest truth about ourselves; and finally to be generous and fraternal in relationships with others, since it is only in being open to the love of God that we discover true joy and the fulfilment of our aspirations.[7]

This is what it means to be a Christian, to be a disciple and follower of Jesus.

As those gathered to together into Christ, let us pray to live up to our name and become other Christs, pointing the way to the one and only Savior.  May others, watching us, see something different about the way we live. Intrigued by this difference, may they follow us and stay with us. And may we, having befriended them, bring them to Jesus. Let us all strive to build up the Body of Christ and increase the number of those who receive his name. Amen.

[1] Saint Anthony of Padua, Homily for the Chair of Peter, 7.  In Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Vol. IV: Sermons for Festivals and Indexes, Paul Spilsbury, trans. (Padua, Italy: Edizioni Messaggero Padova, 2010), 135.
[2] Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 19:2-3. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. IVa: John 1-10, Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2006), 82.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 1.
[4] Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 2.
[5] Ibid., 3.
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the XLVIII World Day of Prayer for Vocations, 19 November 2010.
[7] Ibid.

05 January 2018

A Lecture at the Wade Center

Click on the photo to enlarge it
One of Illinois' unsung treasures is the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, a research library devoted to the Inklings, whose members included the great J.R.R. Tolkien. The library houses original manuscripts, translations of the authors' works into various languages, and books and articles about the writings and lives of the Inklings. Among its treasures is the desk at which the Professor wrote The Hobbit and most of the Lord of the Rings.
When I first visited the Wade Center after returning from my studies in Rome, I mentioned that I was about to give a Theology on Tap lecture on the subject of Tolkien's faith. The archivist quickly asked for a copy of my text for the library and asked if I might be interested in giving the lecture at the Wade Center. Naturally, I was very open to doing so and am happy to say I will give the lecture at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, January 16th. The lecture will be free and open to the public.
In advance of the lecture, the Marion E. Wade Center sent out the following press release to publicize it:

Joy Like Swords : Hobbits, Franciscans, and the Crucifix
 4:00pm | January 16, 2018
The Marion E. Wade Center and the Wheaton College Tolkien Society present a lecture on the work of J. R. R. Tolkien by Rev. Daren J. Zehnle on Tuesday, January 16, 2018 at 4pm in Bakke Auditorium.

After Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee heard a minstrel sing of the deeds of the Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote that “their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.” By exploring the phrase, “their joy was like swords,” we learn to understand the reality of joy mingled with sorrow and experience God’s merciful love as we embrace the Cross.

Father Daren J. Zehnle is a priest of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois where, in addition to other duties he performs for the diocese, he serves as Pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Ashland, Illinois. He is a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, a member of The Tolkien Society, and holds a B.A. from Quincy University, a S.T.B. and a M.Div. from the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, and a J.C.L. from the Pontifical Gregorian University.

This lecture will take place in the Wade Center’s Bakke Auditorium and is free and open to the public. The Wade Center is located at 351 Lincoln Ave. on the northwest corner of campus at the intersection of Washington St. and Lincoln Ave. For more information, contact the Wade Center at 630.752.5908 or

31 December 2017

Homily - 31 January 2017 - The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Dear brothers and sisters,

Up until a relatively short time ago, we, as a society, recognized the family as the most important institution to the building of a just and harmonious society. The family was seen as the place in which we learned fundamental values, among which are how to love one another, how to forgive one another, and how to put others before myself. The family was seen as a school of love and self-forgetfulness. This selflessness was learned from watching the example of a husband and wife whose principle task was to “establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, … which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children” (canon 1055 §1).

We knew that for a happy and successful marriage, a husband needed to put the needs of his wife ahead of his own. We knew that for a happy and successful marriage, a wife needed to put the needs of her husband ahead of her own. We knew that for a happy and successful marriage, a husband and wife had to safeguard their relationship and look to it first. We knew that parents needed to put the needs of their children ahead of their own and that children should honor and respect their children, just as parents should honor and respect their children. We knew that if each member of the family looked to the example of Christ Jesus family life would be beautiful, attractive, and lifegiving.

But something happened along the way and we decided it was acceptable to ignore centuries of wisdom. Rather than continuing to protect and safeguard the family because of its importance to the common good, we decided it was acceptable to redefine and to refashion the family because of our selfish desires.

We first decided that no longer should children be received and welcomed as gifts and blessings from God, but that we should instead be able to determine when and how many were accepted. When contraception was widely used and considered good, despite its clear violation of the law of nature, husbands and wives decided they could separate the two aims of the marital act; they changed its primary focus from that of a complete gift of self to each other and turned it into the satisfaction of individual desires. No longer would marriage be about the mutual well-being and unity of the spouses that increased their love and made it fruitful; it would no longer be about each other, but what other others can do for me. From here, a second decision that children could be done away with if they were not wanted seemed an obvious – even if grotesque and deplorable - consequence.

Once marriage was no longer seen as the full sharing of life and love between the spouses, it was an easy jump to say that marriage was also no longer permanent. First we decided that marriages could simply be dissolved in difficult and tragic circumstances. Then, quite against the very clear words of the Lord Jesus, we decided that marriages could be ended for any reason, or even no reason at all.

As these changes to the long-standing and accepted definition of marriage were made over the course of just a few decades, most Christians regrettably went along with them and even welcomed them gladly. From this, as many rightly warned, the family received a very great wound from which it has not recovered. Family life began to fall apart and, with it, society, as well. These are not popular words today, but the truth is not always very popular.

Christians accepted these changes, and even pioneered them because we largely forgot that

The Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises. This is true from its very first page, with the appearance of Adam and Eve’s family with all its burden of violence but also its enduring strength (cf. Gen 4) to its very last page, where we behold the wedding feast of the Bride and the Lamb (Rev 21:2, 9).[1]

We forgot that family life – and even life generally – is not necessarily meant to be easy, but rewarding. We forgot that marriage and the family is to be the school of love and selflessness. We forgot that the family is not about me, but about us.

It is a curious reality of the inner workings of the mind of God that he continually chooses to allow us – weak and sinful as we are - to be instruments of his grace.

The ability of human couples to beget life is the path along which the history of salvation progresses. Seen this way, the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love. The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection. Saint John Paul II shed light on this when he said, “Our God in his deepest mystery is not solitude, but a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love. That love, in the divine family, is the Holy Spirit”. The family is thus not unrelated to God’s very being.[2]

We came to reshape marriage according to our own desires because we forgot that we are made in the image and likeness of God and that marriage is meant to reflect the inner life of God, to make his love the foundation of our lives.

This is, in part, why the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity chose to be born of a woman and to take on our flesh at Bethlehem.

In the Gospel we do not find discourses on the family but an event which is worth more than any words:  God wanted to be born and to grow up in a human family. In this way he consecrated the family as the first and ordinary means of his encounter with humanity.[3]

The importance of the family is intimately involved with the mystery of Christmas and gives us good reason to ask how well our families reflect the love of the Trinity.

The presence of so many young children in this parish is a sign of great hope for the future, not only for the future of this parish, but for that of society as a whole, and their chattering and laughs makes my heart smile. We know it takes only a little yeast to leaven the dough and only a small flame to dispel the darkness. You, young parents, have a tremendous and beautiful opportunity and mission.

Husbands and wives, strive to love each other well and freely, not because of what your spouse gives or brings to you, but simply for the sake of your spouse; love your spouse because of your spouse. If you do, you will imitate the love of God who loves us not because of what we can do for him, but because we are. Follow the counsel of Saint Paul and

Put on, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful (Colossians 3:12-15).

Allow your marriage to be marked by gratitude, forgiveness, and love so that you may always reflect the merciful love of the Christ Child to a hurting world. Let your marriage always shine out as a beacon of hope to the suffering. Teach your children how to forgive one another and how to let go of grudges. Teach them, through your own example, the beauty of a life lived for others. Teach them to trust in God and not in themselves. Teach them to open their hearts to God and to allow him to dwell in them richly.

If you do this, if you make your marriages a full sharing of life and love and a true and complete self-gift to each other, your marriages will be happy and successful and, more importantly, you will be reflections of God’s love; you will attain your purpose. You and your children, by the grace of God, will be able to begin slowly rebuilding and refashioning society by restoring a recognition of the beauty of marriage.

Standing today at the close of this calendar year and at the threshold of a new year, we can look forward in gloom or in hope; we can look at the wound that we have inflicted on the family and on society, or we can look at the remedy. Some sixteen hundred years ago, Saint Augustine said, “Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good; and the times are good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.”[4]

Let families, then, be again schools of love and selflessness. Let them place the Child Jesus in the center of their hearts! Let us always give thanks to the Father for the gift of his Son and, like the prophetess Anna, speak of him to all who will listen, both in our words and in the manner of our lives. Let us strive to conform our lives to him and so change the times in which we live that we may all come to dwell in the joy of the Father’s house. Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetita, 8.
[2] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 11. Pope Saint John Paul II, Homily at the Eucharistic Celebration in Pueblo de los Angeles, 28 January 1979.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 31 December 2006.
[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 30.8.

24 December 2017

Homily - 25 December 2017 - The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

The Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Dear brothers and sisters,

Christmas is a feast that can only truly be celebrated by the humble. In the context of our present American society, humility is not seen as a virtue, perhaps because it is so greatly misunderstood. Instead of being encouraged to be humble, we are continually instructed that we must promote ourselves over and against others. We honor those who become celebrities and seek to emulate them, even to the point of desiring fame not for having done something important or useful, but simply to be famous. The virtue, if you will, of our modern society is not humility, but pride. The mystery of Christmas – the mystery of God made flesh - stands in stark contrast to this mindset.

Detail, The Prayerbook of Alphonso V of AragonAdd MS 28962, f. 337v
When he preached about the Birth of the Savior, our heavenly patron, Saint Augustine of Hippo, said to his listeners, “Let the humble hold fast to the humility of God” (Sermon 184). As those who seek his intercession and who strive to imitate him as we seek to imitate Christ Jesus (cf. I Corinthians 11:1), he would say these same words to us today: “Let the humble hold fast to the humility of God.”

In another place, Saint Augustine spoke of the humility of God:

If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts our meaningless.

This is why Saint Paul urges us “have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7).

The humility of God is of a such a nature that he did not choose to be born in the halls of the powerful or in the libraries of the learned. He chose, rather, to be born to an unknown woman from an insignificant town and to be placed among the animals. In all this, we see that “God is not loud. He does not make headlines.”[1] He has not need to openly declare his presence because the light of his love attracts the humble and beckons to anyone who seeks to have the burden of his sin lifted and removed.

As we approach the manger of Our Lord to contemplate the mystery of the unimaginable humility of God who took on our flesh out of love for us, each of us must ask an important question: “Am I humble?” It is not a question anyone else can answer for us; the answer can only be found in the recesses of our hearts. It can only be answered by considering how well we have conformed ourselves to the Lord’s words: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29).

When he considered who the humble person is, the English author C.S. Lewis said something that might surprise us today:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it.[2]

The proud cannot hold fast to the humility of God, but the humble can because they know why he came as an infant. Those who are humble know themselves to be sinners in need of a Savior, and so they welcome the Birth of the Son of God with joy; they approach the Child of Bethlehem singing the goodness of the Lord because they know he has come to save his people from their sins (cf. Psalm 89:2; Matthew 1:21). The proud cannot do so because they do not recognize themselves to be sinners and so cannot enter into the joy of these holy days.

Bending low before the manger of Our Lord to adore him in grateful love

means that we emerge from the fundamental law of egotism, self-assertion, self-sufficiency, and that we commend ourselves to the new law of Jesus Christ, who is the man for others and the Son of the Father in the eternal exchange of triune love. Because we cannot do this by ourselves, the offering of Christians means precisely by this: allowing Christ to take us mercifully by the hand and lead us into the inner unity of his organism, his holy Church, and thus, in union with him, to become like God.[3]

The humble will allow themselves to be led by a little child, but the proud will not (cf. Isaiah 11:6).

In these coming days of Christmas, let each of us humbly approach the Holy Infant remembering that Christmas is about his gift, not ours. Let us bend low before the manger of Christ Jesus who humbled himself for us; let us approach him with the humility of sinners approaching the Savior and Redeemer who offers the humbling gift of merciful love. If we do, we can keep our patron’s counsel and hold fast to the humility of God and know the full joy of these holy days by humbly taking our places with the animals, the shepherds, and Our Lady of Humility to adore with them Christ the Lord who will enfold us within his merciful love. Amen.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Homily, 14 July 1991. In Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Teaching and Learning the Love of God: Being a Priest Today (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016), 292.
[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001), 128.
[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Homily, 1 July 1978. In Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Teaching and Learning the Love of God: Being a Priest Today (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016), 89.