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.
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.”
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.’”
If, then, the name we have is that of Christian, we must know what this name we
have been given means.
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.” 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:
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.
This is why he
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).
It is an invitation I make to you, as
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
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.”
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
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.
 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.
 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.
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.