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Fr. Joe Answers:
These are great questions and I hope I can do them justice. The four gospels are important to us because they provide us with the first testimonies of faith. They share the story of Jesus from the perspectives of four quite different communities of Christians living in the first century. They were written between 40 and 70 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. They are not biographies and are not truly concerned about the details of Jesus’ life. Instead they try to convey the meaning of Jesus. The meaning of his life and death was revealed through the kind of person he was. His actions of healing people who were sick, forgiving persons who had sinned and challenging people to be merciful to one another were a living illustration of his teaching that the true God is One of abundant goodness, mercy and love for all creation.
For Catholics, Jesus is not someone who lived and died a long time ago but a living and life-giving presence in our lives today. We experience Jesus in a living community and in the sacraments celebrated by the Church. We also discover Jesus in the poor and those who are in need. When we reach out to help them, we encounter Christ, or rather Christ encounters us.
The gospels are valuable because they provide the first written and preserved account of what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus, and what they knew was important about him. When we read the gospels, we’re always bringing the story of Jesus face to face with our own story. We call the Bible a “living document.” By this we mean it’s not a history but a reality that impacts our lives today. We can gauge the trueness of our own experience of Christ at work in our lives by seeing how it lines up with what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John understood about Jesus. The most important question in reading any gospel is “what is Jesus saying to ME in this story, in this action?”
Above all, the testimony of the gospels is that Jesus revealed or enfleshed the presence of a loving, life-giving God in such a way that we believe that to understand what God is like, we only have to look to Jesus. To understand what God wants of our lives, we only have to look to what Jesus asked of his disciples. This is something that can’t be proven. It’s a testimony of faith and we can only understand its meaning if we respond to it with faith.
The “missing years” aren’t mentioned in the gospels because the four writers were only interested in Jesus’ ministry, his teaching, and expecially his death and resurrection. Many writers over the years have used their imaginations to “fill in the blanks” with descriptions of what might have happened during those years. Such accounts can be intriguing and fun to read but they don’t add to the substance of what we believe to be important about Jesus: that he enfleshed a God of healing and mercy, that he gave of himself for others without counting the cost, and that he continues to live and bring us life today in the Scriptures, in the faith community of the Church and in the sacraments we celebrate.