Gift and gratitude – Mothering Sunday


Gift and gratitude – Mothering Sunday

Published: 17th March, 2024

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Children and family life are perhaps a little unexpectedly rising up the political agenda across the wealthier nations of the world, and this provides an interesting context for our celebration of Mothering Sunday this year. The reason is that birth rates are falling to the point where the lack of children and young people is becoming a social and economic problem. There are shortages in the labour market. People are worrying about who’s going to work to pay the taxes to keep the public services going in the years to come. Politicians from different political traditions inevitably have very different prescriptions for how to resolve this issue.

I’ve spoken many times before about the dominance of individualistic ways of thinking in our contemporary culture, and the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. I suppose that for most people of my sort of age the question of having or not having children is seen very much through the lens of individualism: a matter of personal choice. But more than that, we often speak about having children as if it were primarily about personal fulfilment for the parents. Some of the ways in which we talk about having children have almost begun to sound like an acceptance of the idea that there is a right to have children, and so there are complex moral questions to explore about surrogacy and donorship, who does and who doesn’t get to have fertility treatments, and so forth.

And the flip side of that is that if having children is about the fulfilment of the parents, and is then seen as an essentially selfish act, there arises a sceptical attitude about society supporting families through taxpayer-funded benefits and services. “If you can’t afford to pay for them yourself you shouldn’t have them”, so the argument goes. But now we’re starting to notice that actually society needs people to have children; we’re starting to notice that children and young people bring benefits to the whole of society, and the terms of the debate are shifting a little.

The individualistic “fulfilment for the parents” model of thinking about parenting seems to me to be quite inadequate. For a start, psychologists tell us that parents are on the whole less happy than people without children. There’s a happy thought for Mothering Sunday!  I’m not sure that I accept this finding: of course it is true that children generate a whole lot of worry and anxiety. Any kind of love will bring worry and anxiety and quite often loss and grief thrown into the bargain. But if we’re going to define happiness in those sorts of terms, we’d have to conclude that the happiest people are those who have never loved. And that’s obviously nonsense.

Be that as it may, thinking about parenting as a personal choice aimed at personal fulfilment still seems to me to be inadequate. To explain why I think this, I’d like you to indulge me whilst I talk about my own family.

How does an Englishman end up meeting and falling in love with a Finn? Of course on one level this was very much a personal choice. But on another level it was the product of an extraordinary combination of factors involving very many people. At that time both Finland and the UK were in the European Union, and it was relatively easy for European students to come to British universities. The policy decisions of the British and Finnish governments, not to mention the funds provided by British and Finnish taxpayers to pay our tuition fees, made it possible for us to meet. Our student friendship networks brought us together. We brought to our relationship all those influences that formed our personalities and outlooks on life, not least the complex inheritances that we had received from our own parents. Through the course of our relationship together we were supported and influenced by very many friends and acquaintances, we earned money to pay our way from many employers, we paid tax and received the benefits of public services, we travelled and ate and drank and enjoyed music and culture and debate, we were married in a church that became an important part of our life for several years, with its clergy and laypeople. Our daughters were born, one in each of our countries, with the assistance of two national healthcare systems and any number of medical professionals. So you see that our family like every other family is a part of a vast network of interconnection and mutual dependence. Individualism and the nuclear family are fictions: reality is more complex, more rich, more social, more beautiful.

And of course for Christians this vast network of interconnection and mutual dependence has its origins in God, in whom we live and move and have our being, and who has given us all for each other so that we may learn love and kindness and humility and gratitude.

The utilitarian language of the social scientist and the economist cannot do justice to the richness of human social life, of which our family life is just one part. The language of gift I think will be much more helpful to us. Having a child is a gift. A gift to the parents from God, a gift from the earth that sustains us, from our nations that support us, from our society, from our own families who gave us life and nurtured us. People innumerable, known and unknown, have played their parts in making possible the gift of the child and the relationship from which it was born. But a child is also the gift of the parents to God, to the earth, to our nation, to our society, to our friends and to our families. Every new child has unimaginable potential, every new child brings beauty and joy and love.

But giving can also be painful. When we really give, when we give from deep generosity, we give in a way that means giving something up. We give in a way that means losing in part or in whole something that we love. And children can be a gift in that way too. Mothers cannot hold on to them for ever. They will make their own way, they will assert their independence, fictional as that may ultimately be, and at times there will be rejection, anxiety, and pain.

The mothers in our two bible readings today know all about that. The mothers in our readings today know that parenting is not a matter of personal fulfilment for the parents.

Moses’ mother receives the gift of a child in unimaginably difficult circumstances. We might think of mothers giving birth in Gaza or Ukraine at this time. And Moses’ mother must pass on the gift of the child immediately, giving the child up for his own safety, tenderly preparing a basket for him and leaving him in the hands of God. Unexpectedly she receives him back, and yet his mission will take him away from her again, and he will become her gift to her own people, leading them out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land.

Mary receives the gift of a child also in difficult circumstances, her pregnancy arriving unexpectedly and before the completion of her marriage. Early in her child’s life she hears this strange prophecy, that a sword will pierce her own soul. And as the child grows she will learn more and more the significance of these words. She received Him as a gift but she must also pass on the gift. He must go His own way, He must preach and teach and heal and provoke and disrupt and discomfort. For Mary there will be painful experiences, for Mary her giving will be a giving up, giving up her Son for her people, giving up her Son for the world. She will find out just how deep this giving must be at the foot of the Cross. But like Moses’ mother Mary too will find that her Son is unexpectedly given back to her.

So today we give thanks to God for our mothers, for the life and the love that they have given us, for the gift that they themselves have been to us. And we give thanks to God that we ourselves are their gifts, and that, however painfully, they have let us go to play our parts in the world. And today we give thanks to God that we are part of a great network of connection and mutual dependence, and for the gifts that we have received from God’s loving provision for us, and the gifts that we are able to give to others. And we give thanks above all for that greatest gift, Our Lord Jesus Christ, born of Mary, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory, now and forever. Amen.