Cultivating Joy in the Desert: Reflections for Gaudete Sunday

Joy at the sight of a deadly animal

My daughter is a joyful kid. It seems to be second nature. Except when she is tired or too hungry, whatever she does—eating, singing, playing, reading, talking—is marked by delight and joy, and it is hard to resist, almost contagious.

Her joy often prompts me to reflect on my own joylessness. Anxiety, unrest, and fear can drive days and weeks of my life, usually for good reasons. (After all, I have responsibilities which a 21 month old does not.) My joylessness can stem from correct responses to the world’s brokenness, the fragility of relationships, the cares and concerns of a job and a family. But it makes the Third Sunday of Advent challenging to me.

Today, the Church calls us to joy. Marked by rose-colored candles and vestments, the Third Sunday of Advent is known as “Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday.” The name comes from today’s liturgy’s entrance antiphon, taking up St. Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians (4:4-6): “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!”

What is this joy and rejoicing? It is not quite my daughter’s naïve happiness which could let the world burn (sometimes literally: she likes to play with the stove-top burners). Nor is it my anxious, fearful realism, posing as obedience to the tragic truth of things. Rather, the Church presents a different kind of joy which unites these contraries, a joy which delights in how God’s love saves us in our miseries and invites us to share that love in response to others’ pain.

Sunset in the desert By Stzeman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Our readings emphasize the realism of this joy by its unlikely setting: the desert. For exiles returning to the Promised Land, Isaiah proclaims that the desert “will exult, […] bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song” (Isaiah 35:1-2). Jesus asks what John’s listeners expected to find when they went to see him in the desert (Matthew 11:7-9). Both Isaiah and Jesus draw contrasts with the common experience of deserts.

Deserts can be harsh and unforgiving, places where certain fundamental truths—about one’s limits, one’s resources, one’s identity—can be evaded only at the risk of death. But, as in much of the history of Israel, the desert is a site of truth in relation to God and ourselves. It is the place where our securities and comforts disappear so as to show who (or what) we truly rely upon, to enable us to grow in our reliance upon and love for God.

Encountering the truth of ourselves and the world makes joy more difficult, and the most difficult temptation of the desert is what the early desert monastics called acedia. Often called “the noonday demon,” acedia is that sickness of spirit which drains inherently joyful things of their joy. It makes the hours of the day interminable. It suggests our lives and struggles are meaningless. It urges us to give up. Ultimately, acedia seeks to convince us that God cannot act in and through us, in and through our situations, hopeless as they are.

We are asked to have joy in the desert in order to testify to acedia’s delusion. We rejoice in the midst of harsh and uncomfortable truths, the truth of the world’s and our own brokenness, because God is transforming our reality here and now. The love of God, which culminated in the Incarnation, leaves no corner of human existence separate from God: not pain, not death, not structural injustice, not sickness, not the twisted effects of sin. We see this in Jesus’s miracles: “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (Matthew 11:5). We see this in Jesus’s Cross and resurrection, which open God’s love to the world in the Spirit who works through us. Even here, even in us, the love of God can cause life to rise from the parched sands of our world.

Dorothy Day picketing in support of United Farm Workers Strike
Dorothy Day picketing with the United Farm Workers (source:

Dorothy Day was perhaps one of the twentieth century’s greatest examples of God’s love working in the desert of contemporary America. Her love for the poor and those suffering from social and structural injustices reveals Christ in a new way. Yet she also knew that loving in the midst of tragic situations can drain us of the joy God gives. She wrote beautifully of the necessity of resisting this:

Today I thought of a title for my book, “The Duty of Delight,” as a sequel to “The Long Loneliness.” I was thinking, how as one gets older, we are tempted to sadness, knowing life as it is here on earth, the suffering, the Cross. And how we must overcome it daily, growing in love, and the joy which goes with loving. (The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, p. 318)

On this Gaudete Sunday, God offers us the change to develop joy as a habit, an acquired way of being in the midst of our waiting for Christ. Joy may come less naturally to us as we grow, as we suffer, as we see the world’s ills. But God desires us to have joy, because God is acting in and through Christ and us to transform all things. In our participation in that love of God acting, our joy can enter all situations. Let us ask for that joy in whatever desert we find ourselves in, knowing that God shares all things with us. Let that deliberate cultivation of joy help us prepare to celebrate the ultimate cause for joy: God taking on all things human to share them with us and let us share them with all our brothers and sisters.