Magdalene: The Poetic Gospel of Marie Howe

Donatello, Mary Magdalene (late 1430s)

‘I have come to die for your sins,’ Jesus told a stooped figure passing him on the road. ‘Then what am I to die for?’ the old man asked. Jesus took a small notebook from his pocket and copied the question. ‘If I may have your name and address” he said, “an answer will be sent to you.’ 

 –– A. J. Langguth, Jesus Christs

Everyone wanted to pour his wine, to sit near him at the table.
Me too. Until he was dead.
Then he was with me all the time.

–– Marie Howe, “The Teacher”


Jesus Christs, A. J. Langguth’s little-known novel published in 1968, imagines Jesus turning up in a wide variety of situations both ancient and modern. In a series of short narratives, he’s a schoolboy, a prisoner, a Vietnamese soldier, a talk-show host, a priest, a prophet, and a host of other characters. Not limited to his biblical incarnation as a first-century Jew, he exists as a recurring phenomenon with an innate awareness, if not always complete understanding, of his unique nature and demanding vocation. Despite being thrown into a new time and place every page or two, the multiple Jesuses retain a semblance of self-recognition within the flux of ceaseless improvisation. But over the course of the novel, the struggles and hopes of all those Jesus Christs begin to seem indistinguishable from our own.

Langguth’s pluralizing of Jesus explores Gerard Manley Hopkins’ premise that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” wearing many faces, as if the Incarnation were not a singular event but a series of experiments––not only in the range of human possibilities, but in the very feasibliity of translating divinity into the syntax of creaturely dilemmas. Some of these experiments fail in sad or funny ways, but the ongoing repetition of the attempt suggests that there may be something––or Some One––whose desire for human flourishing remains eternally persistent.

Langguth’s quirky novel first appeared when I was a young seminarian immersed in biblical studies, and it had a lasting impact on the way I think about both the representations and the manifestations of the living––that is to say, ever-recurring––Jesus. The One who changes everything keeps coming again and again, and “the holy gospel according to us” not only reframes the way we understand our own stories, but the way we re-read the original biblical texts. Jesus lives, and so does Scripture, and the thing about living things is, they can’t be pinned down or dissected into fixed and final meanings. They keep surprising us with new revelations.

All this came to mind when I discovered, during Easter Week, Marie Howe’s Magdalene, a luminous and moving collection of poems in which two biblical figures, Mary Magdalene and Jesus, assume new identities in the deeply felt narratives and perceptions of a contemporary woman.

When the sixth-century Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary Magdalene with the anonymous woman taken in adultery and the weeping sinner whose tears bathed the feet of her Lord, Magdalene became a compelling archetype for the forgiven sinner. The haggard penitent carved from a tree trunk by Donatello is famous for its rigorous rejection of idealized beauty. Both vanity and earthly delight have been stripped away. But this was an exception. Most depictions of Magdalene retain a robust sensuality, like the close-up of Joanne Dru’s tear-stained face, gazing up at her Savior in my father’s 1954 Jesus film, Day of Triumph. Her riveting Technicolor image made a lasting impression on my ten-year-old self.

Joanne Dru as Mary Magdalene in Day of Triumph (1954)

Through the long centuries of male-dominated biblical storytelling, the conflated Magdalene figure was typecast as a fallen women tainted by her erotic past. These days she is more accurately understood as an important disciple and primary witness to the Resurrection. But Howe, in voicing the complexity of feminine experience, candidly embraces the Magdalene tradition’s erotic themes while attaching new ones––particularly motherhood––as well. Instead of sticking to the original gospel scripts, she claims the authority of personal experience. “That’s what the story says, but that’s not what he told me,” insists the speaker of these poems.[i]

The collection contains some overtly biblical moments, such as “Magdalene on Gethsemane,” where “what he imagined was not his own torture, not his own death,” but the abuse and torture of “the others”––history’s countless victims. In “Calvary,” the shock of the Crucifixion is felt keenly in its defamiliarizing depiction as a distant, unnoticed thing:

Someone shaking out a rug from an open window
might have heard hammering, one or two blocks away
and thought little or nothing of it.

When the modern Magdalene puts her little girl to bed in “Christmas Eve,” she notices the baby Jesus is missing from the crèche they had set up in her room.

Later when I went to check on her, I saw she’d built a labyrinth of blocks,
a very high tower in the middle of the labyrinth. . .
and at the foot of the tower, the clay baby Jesus and a lamb.

Where was Mary, and Joseph?
Here, she pointed out from her bed––wandering through the seemingly
endless corridors of the labyrinth––looking for their lost child.

“Christmas Eve” could be a metonymy for the book’s overall interplay of the biblical and the contemporary, with the witty difference here of using the clay figures of a Christmas crèche instead of “real” characters. Even more representative of the whole is the poem’s image of endless search––not only for an absent Jesus, but for the inner truth of the seeker herself.

Explaining her attraction to biblical figures, Howe has said, “I grew up with these characters. They are us––flawed, faithful, frightened.”[ii] But in most of these poems, her Magdalene disappears into the everyday sorrows and joys of the poet, so that both Mary Magdalene and her modern counterpart become Everywoman, representing the many through the particularity of the singular and personal. Mary/Marie, like the Jesus in Langguth’s novel, becomes the “I” who contains multitudes:

Remember the woman in the blue burka forced to kneel in the stadium
then shot in the head? That was me.
And I was the woman who secretly filmed it.[iii]

Such unbearable imagery is countered by the vivid register of small delights, like resting her chin on her lover’s shoulder as their bodies entwine in the shallows of a summer sea, or binge-watching an Edith Wharton adaptation with her adopted daughter:

both of us, wrapped in blankets shouting No no no no
when the last most vibrant girl agreed to marry the rich sop.[iv]

Mary Magdalene, St. Luke tells us, was afflicted by seven devils, and the voice in these poems knows them well. “The first was that I was very busy.” The list grows; the demons become darker, more difficult. Halfway through the lengthy poem she admits that the first devil actually was that “I could never get to the end of the list.”[v]

In “Magdalene: The Addict,” her torment is naked and unashamed:

I liked Hell,
I liked to go there alone
relieved to lie in the wreckage, ruined, physically undone.
The worst had happened. What could hurt me then?
I thought it was the worst, thought nothing worse could come.
Then nothing did, and no one.

And yet, to the biblical Magdalene, something––someone––did come. And to the poet as well, although her “Teacher” remains shadowy and elusive. Like the Christ who warned Magdalene, Noli me tangere (“Touch me not!”), her redemptive guide cannot be grasped. “Was he my husband, my lover, my teacher? / One book will say one thing. Another book another.”[vi]

The turning point for the Mary/Marie persona is anticipated in a confessional lament, “What I Did Wrong.” After a painfully honest catalogue of personal failings, she shows a snapshot of her tormented soul: “Years holding on to a rope / that wasn’t there, always sorry . . .” But then, the crucial question:

Who would
follow that young woman down the narrow hallway?
Who would call her name until she turns?

Who indeed? We all know that hallway. We all long for that loving voice. The weeping Magdalene heard it by the garden tomb. “Mary,” he said. When she turned to respond, she rose from the dead.

Whoever he was––and is––the Teacher knows your hunger, your desire, but the finding you seek always means a losing as well. Desire is the prelude to surrender:

So, I thought I had to become more than I was, more than I’d been,
but that wasn’t it. It seemed rather that
something had to go. Something had to be let go of.[vii]

No cheap grace here; instead, the “hard and bitter agony. . . like death” endured by T. S. Eliot’s Magi in their own search for the Holy One. As Magdalene sums up the message in another poem:

How many times did he say it
Change doesn’t hurt he’d say,
as much as resistance to change [viii]

Howe’s haunting suite of poems, like Mark’s gospel, ends inconclusively. “What use / has it been? Somebody loved me / Somebody left. . .” And yet, “Whatever flooded into the world when / He died” relieves the wounding absence with traces of an impossible presence. This redemptive hope is perfectly expressed in “Magdalene at the Grave,” whose clear echo of the Easter appearance stories blesses us with a strange and consoling grace.

On a late summer afternoon, the poet is driving to a cemetery to mourn a departed loved one. Whether she’s Mary remembering Jesus or Marie mourning an unnamed contemporary doesn’t matter. All mortal stories converge at the remembering place. When a heavy rain starts to fall, she decides to turn the car around and head for home. But once she reaches her driveway, she feels a strong compulsion (“as if something were pulling me”) to go back and complete her pilgrimage to the grave of her beloved.

Ridiculous as it was to park and kneel where he’d been buried
––to kneel in the rain––I laughed out loud!

After a few minutes, I looked up and saw the other car idling,
the driver’s window rolled down.

It’s a moment radiant with resurrection mystery. The sudden appearance of the other car. The window rolled down, but is someone there or not? No running over for a closer look. No touch. Only this final, utterly persuasive testimony:

The tears I wept were not tears of grief.
How many times must it happen before I believe?


Giotto, Noli me tangere (Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, 1304-6)


[i] Marie Howe, “Magdalene on Gethsemane,” in Magdalene: Poems (New York / London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017), 46. All of Howe’s cited poems are from this volume.

[ii] Interview in EDS Now (Spring 2013), p. 5. Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, MA, was my seminary.

[iii] “Magdalene Afterwards,” in Howe, 48.

[iv] “Adaptation,” in Howe, 79-80.

[v] “Magdalene––The Seven Devils,” in Howe, 16, 18.

[vi] “The Teacher,” in Howe, 69.

[vii] “The Teacher,” in Howe, 42-43.

[viii] One of 7 untitled interludes in Howe, 54.

My 10 favorite Jesus movie moments

My father, the Rev. James K. Friedrich, with Joanne Dru on the set of "Day of Triumph" (1954).

My father, the Rev. James K. Friedrich, with Joanne Dru on the set of “Day of Triumph” (1954).

In my last post, I listed my “ten best Jesus movies.” Here now are my ten favorite moments, scenes which not only succeed cinematically but also provide fresh and resonant images of the Christ who, as the Jesuit poet said, “plays in ten thousand places.” But my ultimate criterion is that each of these scenes, after countless viewings, never fails to engage and move me.

No single image can capture the mystery of the Word made flesh. No actor will make you think he has become the perfect movie Jesus. But whenever the gospel story is retold and re-experienced, we may yet see something we had previously missed. We may even partake of a new revelation that has been waiting all these years to be received.

1927: The little blind girl (The King of Kings)

Most of the Jesus films invent dialogue to fill the gaps, but the incidents involving Jesus remain mostly Scriptural. But this scene, performed with silent cinema’s eloquent language of faces and gestures, is entirely invented. And it’s marvelous. A boy just healed by Jesus wants to share his blessing with a blind girl. “Take my hand – let me lead thee to him.” He guides her to a window and gives her a boost. Inside, the mother of Jesus gently receives the girl, who feels Mary’s face with her hands. “Please, I have come to find Jesus.” In the original score, the string section plays “Fairest Lord Jesus” here, imploring every sentiment. Mary takes the girl to stand before her son, who has not yet appeared on screen. “Lord, I have never seen the flowers nor the light. Wilt thou open my eyes?” The pleadingly expressive girl (played unforgettably by Muriel McCormack) stands in for all of us who long to see the Light of the world. The air around her grows luminous, and then, through her own eyes, we see a blurry glow gradually become the loving face of Christ, whom we, like her, now see for the first time. It perhaps the grandest entrance in the genre, and the perfect metaphor for a medium trying to bring the reality of Christ to light.

1954: The Lost Sheep (Day of Triumph)

I admit special affection for this film because my father produced it and I got out of school for a week to play an extra (who ended up on the cutting room floor). And this sequence, employing the traditional (though unbiblical) conflation of Mary Magdalene with repentant female sinners, has moved me ever since I first saw it as a child. Magdalene, a wealthy courtesan (played by the beautiful Joanne Dru), happens to hear Jesus teaching in Jerusalem. When he tells the parable of the Lost Sheep, he looks pointedly at her. Back in her house, she asks her servant – an early follower – what she knows about Jesus, masking her spiritual longing as idle curiosity. As the conversation unfolds, something in Magdalene breaks, and we cut to a Pharisee’s house, where Jesus has been invited to dine. A repentant Magdalene, now in humble attire, arrives to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears. The Pharisee is shocked, the disciples bewildered. When Jesus speaks the words of forgiveness over her, we get the first close-up of Mary Magdalene’s tear-stained face. Every close-up in effect isolates the face from the external particularities of body, environment and social context, conveying something both universal and purely inward. For me, this intimate view of Mary’s magnified face as she raises her downcast eyes toward Jesus evokes salvation history in a single glance.

1965: The Annunciation to Joseph (The Gospel According to St. Matthew)

How do you tell the story of Joseph coming to terms with Mary’s pregnancy when you are restricted to Matthew’s actual text, which provides neither dialogue nor psychological description? Pasolini begins his film with a close-up of Mary, then of Joseph, each face suggesting an unresolved tension between them. After two more awkward close-ups, we finally see a full shot of a pregnant Mary (full of dis-grace) and the problem becomes clear. The scene moves toward resolution through entirely visual means, like silent cinema, omitting even Matthew’s sparse narration. When speech (the angel’s “annunciation” to Joseph) finally does intrude into this silent world, it feels like the shock of the transcendent. In the beginning was the Word.

1969: Jesus the teacher (Son of Man)

The Jesus in this rarely seen British television production is neither meek nor mild. In his Sermon on the Mount, he moves energetically among the crowd, prodding and challenging them to think in new and uncomfortable ways. First he invites them to embrace the kinfolk around them as a sign of love. “That’s nice, isn’t it?” he says, noting how easy it is to love those who love you. It’s nothing extraordinary. “Do you want me to congratulate you for that?” Then he delivers the kicker: “Love your enemy!” As he lists specific examples of the enemies they should love, the crowd begins to murmur its dissent, to which Jesus responds emphatically: “Did I come to tell you easy things? Do you want me to tell you easy things?”

1973: Resurrection? (Godspell)

The dead Jesus is taken down from the chain link fence where he hangs suspended. As his followers carry his body through the strangely empty streets of New York, their song turns from sorrow to joy. Some begin to dance while they process, as if Jesus has risen anew in the bodies of his disciples. As for the body which had once called “Jesus,” it is taken around a corner, out of our sight. When the camera itself finally rounds that corner, the disciples and the body they carried are gone. Instead, we see hundreds of people walking toward us – the people you would see any day on a busy city street. The body we knew has “ascended” out of our sight, and Jesus returns in the form of everyone.

1977: The Prodigal Son (Jesus of Nazareth)

Jesus invites himself to a party at Matthew’s house. The disciples are shocked that he would dine with sinners. Peter, who really hates the “blood-sucking” tax collector, tries to stay away entirely, but curiosity finally brings him to stand just outside the door. When Jesus spots him peering in, he decides to tell a parable about two sons. Not only is this scene cinema’s best example of Jesus as storyteller, it makes the parable contextual, aimed directly at Peter (the “elder brother”) and Matthew (the “prodigal”). Both get the point; both are changed by it. The whole scene is perhaps the most moving “resurrection story” in the entire genre.

1988: Christ before Pilate (The Last Temptation of Christ)

David Bowie plays a blasé, sardonic Pilate in his interrogation of Jesus, whom he dismisses as just another Jewish troublemaker. This is not a conflicted, timorous official afraid of the crowd or hesitant to condemn an innocent man, but a cold-eyed realist who knows how the world works. When Jesus explains that he wants to bring change through love, not violence, Pilate recites the creed of the status quo: “Killing or loving, it doesn’t matter how you want to change things. We don’t want them changed.”

1998: Jesus returns (The Book of Life)

The only Jesus movie about the Second Coming begins with a shabbily dressed man outside a New York airport terminal, speaking in a loud voice to no one in particular: “Forgive me, Jesus, for I have sinned. Have mercy on us now and at the hour of our death.” Over and over he cries out in the flat, mechanical tone of a mind in disarray. Passersby give him a wide berth. Suddenly a man in a nice suit enters the frame to put a hand on the vagrant’s shoulder, silencing his repetitive plea with a touch and a look. This healing stranger turns out to be Jesus, who has just flown in – on New Year’s Eve, 1999 – to judge the living and the dead (though it later turns out he just wants to forgive everyone). Then Jesus moves on to catch a taxi, followed by Mary Magdalene, who in passing reassures the stunned vagrant. “It’s OK,” she says, before hurrying on to the apocalypse.

2004: The Agony in the Garden (The Passion of the Christ)

While many find this film unwatchable for its excessive violence and uncritical use of Passion Play caricatures, it begins with a memorably haunting Gethsemane sequence. Dimly lit in the olive grove, Jesus shows real agony. “I’ve never seen him like this,” whispers a worried disciple. The horror movie tropes – full moon, deep shadows, the anxious expectancy of a camera in motion – contribute to the sense of something beyond the ordinary taking place, as though we are in a supernatural thriller. And when Jesus falls to the ground to beg the cup of suffering to pass him by, we see Satan watching him closely. Together they enact a mythic prologue to the Passion narrative: Gethsemane becomes the Garden of Eden, but this time the human will not fall to the demonic. The snake will be crushed beneath the Savior’s foot. When Satan leans down over the anguished Jesus praying to his Father, he asks him, “Who is your Father?” This seems less like a taunt than a perfect expression of evil’s blindness. Not only is it unable to see the good; it is unable even to conceive it.

2006: The Annunciation (Son of Man)

This South African film’s prologue is a Temptation scene where Jesus rebukes Satan by saying, “This is my world.” “No!” Satan replies, “This is my world.” As if to prove Satan’s point, the film cuts to a 21st-century African country torn by violent civil strife. In a small town, armed guerillas are killing everyone in sight. A young woman, fleeing the violence, hides in a schoolroom, where she is horrified to find a pile of murdered students. She lies down among them to play dead until the killers pass by. When she finally opens her eyes, there is the angel Gabriel (a shirtless boy adorned with white feathers), announcing the birth of the Savior. Mary responds with the Magnificat, sung in a powerful South African idiom. Here is the gospel absolutely in the present tense.