In Edgar Allen Poe’s classic work The Purloined Letter, detective Dupin is enlisted by the Prefect of Police to retrieve a stolen letter which is known to be in a hotel room, yet has remained undiscovered despite the police force’s best efforts.
The Prefect returns to Dupin a month later, flabbergasted at his force’s inability to find the letter, even after so much time and after having turned the room inside out. Dupin, with the arrogance characteristic of any great sleuth, wryly asks the Prefect to write him a check for the reward, which the Prefect immediately does. With money in hand, Dupin hands the letter over, no doubt with a slight smirk.
Dupin then explains how he found the letter: The thief, knowing that the room would be searched, assumed that his reputation for cleverness would cause the police to presume he crafted an elaborate hiding place. His assumption was correct, and even after a month’s time the police couldn’t find it, simply because he had hidden it in the last place one would ever expect him to hide it: in plain sight.
Dupin’s means of discovery was to get to know the thief, and thus by understanding him he was able to deduce the hiding place and find the stolen letter.
What Do We Do With a Missing Jesus?
Luke’s Gospel recounts the story of Jesus in the temple as an almost-teenager: he is twelve, and his parents, as was their custom, went up to Jerusalem for Passover. As the story goes, the festival concludes and everyone begins to head home. Since families in ancient times were large and traveled together on such pilgrimages, Mary and Joseph expected that Jesus was somewhere among the relatives, perhaps hanging out with the other young men, bothering sheep and such.
You know, like you do when you’re twelve.
But after a day they possibly wanted to ask him something or have a meal together, and then they get that sinking Home-Alone feeling- he isn’t at the baggage claim, er, the camel watering hole. The pit in the stomach grows as they start asking uncles and aunts and cousins if they have seen Jesus recently. As in any of these situations, there were probably a couple false leads, as an aunt whose eyesight isn’t what it used to be thought she saw him with the Johnson boys over by the well, and another relative could have sworn he was just talking with him earlier that morning.
But eventually the realization sets in that Jesus isn’t there and they have left him in Jerusalem, which now brings us into Home Alone 2 territory. Joseph may have wondered if Jesus had his wallet and if he even knew how to use a denarii.
But finding a twelve year old in Jerusalem is like finding a needle in a haystack, made especially more difficult when Jesus is fond of parables about needles and, well, there is hay everywhere. After having not seen him for a day, we are now told that they spend three days in Jerusalem looking for him.
No doubt they searched out all the places a twelve-year old might go. The Roman governor’s mansion would probably be an interesting sight; the barracks with soldiers training might have piqued his interest, or maybe down to the jails to see the local riffraff on display. After searching the more logical pre-teen boy haunts they might have started to go to the other side of the tracks, looking down alleys, peeking into houses, talking to any relatives or friends they had in the city.
We don’t know what went through their minds, but three days alone in a big city is a long time. Where would he stay? What would he have eaten? What has happened to him? Now that the tourist spots and the interesting sights have been eliminated, was there perhaps a fear that somehow Jesus wandered into that part of Jerusalem? After all, every city has places that most people simply do not go.
Nobody ever goes in. Nobody ever comes out.
Once all their options have been eliminated, and perhaps with not much hope left, they go with the last resort- the temple. One might not expect a twelve-year old, no matter how good or pious, to want to frequent a temple, nor is it necessarily likely that he would have been allowed in without a guardian. It could be that Mary and Joseph had no option left but to pray, and what better place to pray than at the temple?
Like the Prefect of Police, they have been searching according to the assumptions they have about Jesus and about what he would do and where he would be. Going on four days and these assumptions have led to nothing except despair.
But upon arrival in the temple, all that fear and worry is met by the face of the boy they love, the son who has caused them so much anguish for the past four days. With what must have been a mix of relief and exasperation, they do not find him alone and afraid nor hurt and malnourished, but rather having a theological discussion with the rabbis. All the assumptions about Jesus are completely overturned in this one moment, and all they can do is exclaim:
“Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
We all know the feeling- you worry and fret about something, thinking it is the most terrible situation and is causing someone you love a tremendous amount of pain and anguish, only to discover that they were oblivious to the whole thing. While most of us (like Mary and Joseph) feel relief in the resolution, there is the temptation to want the other to feel just a bit of it too, or at least to recognize that we have felt that on their behalf, almost as if we have vicariously suffered for them.
Their words are from astonishment rather than spite, and it becomes clear that there are some things they simply won’t understand, and, by extension, neither will we. For when something contradicts our assumptions and when we finally see what has been hiding in plain sight all along, the only good response is to accept it and shut up.
But Jesus’ response demonstrates that he is not just any lost twelve-year old, nor is he really lost at all. Rather, he is here because this is where he belongs. Mary and Joseph were taking him back to Nazareth- taking him back home- but he tells them that this is really his home:
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
His parents are as close to him as anybody could be, and Mary has a bond with the Son of God that is unique throughout all of human history, but even she had to learn to look for Jesus in the right places. We are told that she treasured all these things in her heart, and what could that mean but that now she was ready to look for Jesus where he was because now she was beginning to know him.
Detective Dupin could only find the letter in plain sight because he came to know and understand the one who hid it; likewise, Mrs. McAllister finds Kevin in front of a huge Christmas tree because she knows him.
Learning How to Find Him
Mary is beginning to learn that Jesus is where his Father is, and thus she has to think like God to find him. This will be an incredibly painful game of hide-and-seek, for part of being where God is ultimately is at the foot of the cross, looking up at the pierced hands and mangled back of the son she loves so dearly. That same twelve-year old who was not lost in Jerusalem but was at home in the temple is somehow just at home here on the cross, bearing the sins of the world upon himself. It was perhaps not until this moment that she understood the full extent of the words of her pre-teen so many years ago, not until she learned to find him here in his Father’s house.
After all, he said of his own body that if the temple were destroyed, he would build it again in three days. Those agonizing three days of looking for Jesus in Jerusalem she would again experience in looking for the resurrection from the dead, that street of reality that everyone knows you just don’t go down, because those who do never come back. But she has learned to keep looking for him, because she knows firsthand that assumptions about this kid are going to be undone.
Death is the ultimate assumption, but one that Mary perhaps learned to leave behind. She is, after all, conspicuously absent from the Easter visits to the tomb. It is to others whom- after three days of searching- it is asked “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” It is not unreasonable to think that the words she had treasured in her heart for so long had blossomed forth into a faith that even the greatest enemy could not shake.
It could be she did not go to the tomb because she knew she wouldn’t find him there.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Jesus’ tactic of hiding in plain sight is so that we will search for him, and by doing so, find him. But like Dupin’s solution to the problem of the Purloined Letter, sometimes we have to learn where to look. Mary learned to find Jesus in his Father’s house, and we must do the same. As Origen states:
He is not found as soon as sought for, for Jesus was not among His kinsfolk and relations, among those who are joined to Him in the flesh, nor in the company of the multitude can He be found. Learn where those who seek Him find Him, not every where, but in the temple. And do you then seek Jesus in the temple of God. Seek Him in the Church, and seek Him among the masters who are in the temple. For if you wilt so seek Him, you shall find Him. They found Him not among His kinsfolk, for human relations could not comprehend the Son of God; not among His acquaintance, for He passes far beyond all human knowledge and understanding. Where then do they find Him? In the temple! If at any time you seek the Son of God, seek Him first in the temple, thither go up, and verily shall you find Christ, the Word, and the Wisdom, (i.e. the Son of God.)