It's ironic that every third year, the gospel on the feast of the Holy Family is one of those rare infancy narrative passages which presumes neither Joseph or Mary was privy to a special annunciation, explaining just who their son really was. As the late Raymond Brown mentions in his classic book Birth of the Messiah, though today's pericope is included in a gospel which has an annunciation, the community which originally passed on this story about the lost Jesus seems to have known nothing about it. Luke simply included this source in his overall narrative to emphasize Jesus' gospel focus on Jerusalem.
Even as a child, I had difficultly taking this passage on face value. If Joseph and Mary know their son is God, why are they uptight about "losing" him? How exactly does one lose God? And besides, I couldn't imagine, after three days of being lost, asking my father, "Why were you looking for me?" I can only suspect what kind of sharp response he would have given me.
Brown always reminded his students that biblical annunciations are for us, the readers, not the actual participants. An annunciation is a literary device employed to inform readers about the real or deeper meaning of specific events; a meaning we usually don't uncover in our own lives until long after those original events have taken place. Historically, it's very possible that Jesus' parents didn't understand what their annunciations conveyed until after Jesus' death and resurrection. It was only then that the pieces of the Jesus puzzle finally came together.
That means that they, like us, only discover the real personality of those around us - even our children - by constantly relating to them. There are no annunciation shortcuts.
That's why it's important to listen carefully to our Sirach and Colossians readings. Both authors are very concerned with how we actually relate to others. Each provides us with some "helpful hints" on how to bring this about.
Sirach especially zeroes in on how a child relates to his or her parents - especially when those parents become dependent on that child. "Take care of your father when he is old, grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fails, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life." The literal Hebrew reads, "Do not confront him in the fullness of your strength." In other words, though you're now more powerful than he is, still relate to him in a gentle way. Constantly reminding your parents about their weaknesses will accomplish little. It's interesting what we can still learn from and about our parents, even after dementia sets in. But patience is a prerequisite for such proper relating.
The disciple of Paul who wrote Colossians couldn't agree more, though he adds a lot of other important relationship characteristics: "heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness ... bearing with one another and forgiving one another ... and over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection." As any parent, or married couple can testify, relating is hard work.
Perhaps we should do more than just honor Joseph, Mary and Jesus today. There are ways we can imitate them. Modern biblical scholarship has provided us with tools which better help us understand their historical situation. They succeeded as a family not because they were favored with special privileges, but because, amid all the normal uncertainties of life, they worked at being the people God expected them to be. Something we can also do, even if our mother isn't a virgin and our son, God.