FROM A READING FOR DEC. 27, FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY
'When [Jesus'] parents saw Him, they were astonished, and His mother said to Him, "Child, why have you treated us like this?...Your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety"...' - Luke 2:48

One of the most significant discoveries in the last 150 years of biblical studies is that most of our sacred authors used sources.

Those familiar with the four mosaics of the evangelists immediately under the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome will remember how each Gospel writer is depicted with a piece of papyrus in front of him, a stylus in his hand and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove on his shoulder.

Were those mosaics created today and not in the 16th century, the evangelists would have several pieces of papyrus in front of them -- not to write on, but to copy from.

The discovery of the use of sources helped solve a problem with Sunday's Gospel (Luke 2:41-52) that I already had as a child: If Mary was told by an angel in chapter one that her child is the Son of God, how, in chapter two, after losing Him and eventually finding Him in the temple, could she say, "Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety?" Why would God's mother be anxious about even temporarily losing Him?

Source codes
The late Scripture scholar Rev. Raymond Brown addressed my problem in his classic book, "The Birth of the Messiah." He presumed that Luke employed at least two different sources in his infancy narrative. The chapter-one source contained an annunciation to Mary; the chapter-two source knew nothing about such a unique encounter. The community which produced the latter presumed Mary, like any parent, was legitimately worried about her missing child.

When we couple Luke's use of sources with Father Brown's conviction that biblical annunciation narratives are simply literary devices created by our sacred authors to let their readers in on the meaning of the events they're narrating, Sunday's Gospel passage prompts some significant insights.

Here's one: If the historical Joseph and Mary didn't receive any annunciations, then they, as a family, had to deal with one another as we have to deal with one another in our own families. They didn't spend 30 years just pretending to be a real family; they actually were a real family.

Mary, Joseph and even Jesus would have applied Sunday's Sirach (3:2-7,12-14) passage to themselves. All three had to work on their relationships and appreciated any biblical help they could surface. They wouldn't have automatically related in an ideal way to one another. It took time and a lot of effort to really build a family.

Colossians and compassion
These chosen three lived in a particular place during a specific time in history. They had to deal with situations within those limits, just as the author of Sunday's Colossians (3:12-21) passage was restricted by his/her historical environment.

The priest giving my parents their marriage instructions took this Colossians passage literally: He told my mother that my father was to have the last word in every important family decision. That certainly was a different time and place. I don't know how his instructions would play in most places today. (Fortunately, my parents didn't follow his advice, even back in 1938.)

On the other hand, most of what the Colossians author says applies to everyone, no matter their time and place. "Put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another. And over all these, put on love, that is, the bond of perfection."

Especially on this particular feast, it's good to remember that one early, anonymous Christian community believed these words applied as much to the Holy Family as they apply to all our families here and now.