A Hollow Sweater

Chad Engbers

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for,
the evidence of things not seen.
–Hebrews 11:1, KJV

Our sunroom is closed for the season. It is really an enclosed threeseason porch, and now is the grim and grey fourth season. Throughout the long Michigan winter, the sunroom sits behind our house like a pleasant thought tucked in the back of our minds. The room itself is frigid cold, but it holds memories of warmer months. Just ask our cat Miles, who spends most of his waking hours–and a fair number of his sleeping ones–in the sunroom during the spring, summer, and fall. There are three bird feeders in the back yard, making these windows the feline equivalent of an IMA X theater in the warmer months. In the winter, Miles sits for hours by the sliding door to the porch, longing for spring and the coming of birds, staring at the snowfilled yard the best he can and pawing sadly at the cold glass.

In one corner of the sunroom stands a lonely crib, complete with a bare, vinyl-covered mattress. Like the rest of the house, the crib is waiting for our daughter, Anya, whom we have not yet met but hope to adopt from Nepal some time this summer. We have been in the adoption process for well over a year now, considerably longer than Anya has been alive–if she has been born at all. In that time I have experienced hope in very different ways. Sometimes it is tucked away somewhere in the back of my mind, a sunny certainty held in reserve. At other times, I am transfixed by longing and catch myself staring at the book I am supposed to be reading or the paper I am supposed to be grading as if it were a field of snow. During these moments, hope is like a lonely room surrounded by the cold.

At the time I am writing, the Christian church is passing between its two great seasons of waiting. Advent and Lent are the cold snaps on the Christian calendar, the periods of bleak anticipation before the mighty thaws of Christmas and Easter. These two times of waiting have always seemed to me the most intuitive phases of the liturgical year: some human beings have little experience or facility with joy, but everyone knows what it means to yearn. In the past year, Advent and Lent have given me a vocabulary with which to long for my daughter, a spiritual way to look at the hollow crib in our sunless sunroom. Anya received her first Christmas presents this year–a stuffed animal, a children’s book–but I tend to think of them as Advent presents. They have not yet been received, after all. My wife and I look at them and try to imagine a little girl’s hands around them. They seem more like vague promises than actual presents.

But if the Christian church has offered a liturgical equivalent of the empty crib, of bleak seasons of waiting, it has not neglected the other form of hope, those brief moments of sunny certainty. Into its seasons of waiting, the church has tucked two Sundays of surprising joy. The fourth Sunday in Lent is called Laetare Sunday. Laetare is Latin for “rejoice”; it is the first word of the introit assigned to this day in traditional church liturgy. In Catholic churches, Laetare Sunday is vividly proclaimed by the rosecolored vestments of the priests, in contrast to the somber purple worn throughout Lent. In some circles, Laetare Sunday is known–more poignantly–as “Rose Sunday.” It is a breath of spring amidst the dread chill of Lent: flowers temporarily reappear on the altar; lively songs are sung; Lenten practices such as fasting are suspended for the day.

Laetare Sunday has a counterpart in the third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudate Sunday (gaudate being yet another Latin word for “rejoice” and the first word of the traditional introit for this day). On this Sunday, too, priests wear rose vestments. Even in Protestant churches, the day is marked by the single rose-colored candle in Advent wreaths. Set against the solemn hope of Lent and Advent, these two Sundays are statements of something even deeper, stronger, and more joyful than hope: faith. They announce with certainty the promise of the season: that the bare manger will soon hold a savior, that the tomb will soon be empty. That the vacant crib will soon hold a living, breathing daughter.

The most beautiful Advent present given to Anya this year is really a gaudate present. It is a tiny sweater handknit by my wife, Anya’s very first piece of clothing. My wife finished it while we were watching a movie on the couch one night, and she gently handed it over to me for inspection. I hefted it and found it heavy with hope. Like the crib, the sweater is hollow, but it is gaudate hollow–an emptiness full of promise. (It just happens to be rose colored.) The sweater approximates the size and shape of Anya’s little torso, and I automatically imagined it filled with a baby as it lay spread-eagled across my upturned palms. To my surprise, I was actually afraid to move it too suddenly.

The substance of things hoped for.

The evidence of things not seen.

Faith is a hollow sweater.

Chad Engbers teaches in the English Department at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For further reflections on the process of adoption and its anticipations, see his weblog, engbers.blogspot.com.