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.

Where did Jesus go?

Ascension has always been a favorite feast for me. This is what I preached this morning at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Medina, Washington.

Ascension for blog

In the 1960’s, the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci interviewed
the American astronaut Wally Schirra:

“How does it feel to be up there?” she asked him.
“How does it feel to be floating weightlessly up there?”

He shook his head slowly. “Feeling weightless… I don’t know… You feel exquisitely comfortable, that’s the word for it, exquisitely… You feel comfortable and you feel you have so much energy, such an urge to do things, such ability to do things.  And you work well, yes, you think well, you move well, without sweat, without difficulty, as if the biblical curse, “in the sweat of thy face and in sorrow,” no longer exists. As if you’d been born again.”

“And when you come back to Earth, Mr. Schirra? …
how does it feel … to come back to Earth?  What’s it like?”

“For me it’s a great feeling of regret, a great sorrow. It starts when the retro rockets are about to fire and the time indicator shows how much time you still have left, and you’re no longer weightless, and the dropping needle takes away your joy and restores your weight, your biblical curse… Zero zero; three zero minutes and zero zero seconds… Zero zero; one zero minute and zero zero seconds… It’s robbing you of … your exquisite lightness, … and you can’t do anything about it, and while you are still thinking, you can’t do anything about it, there it’s nearly at an end, there it’s ending, there it’s ended.  While you’re thinking that, you’re back here on the Earth. No, returning isn’t a sigh of relief.  You can love the Earth with all the love in the world: Returning is regret, is sorrow.”

I have always loved this intriguing testimony someone who was able, for a time,
to escape the bonds of earth, to shed the weight of gravity
and experience the levity of the heavens.

Do you think the Ascension was like that?
Do you think it was a relief for Jesus to shed the weight of earthly existence,
to finally leave it all behind: the sweat and thirst, the labor and sorrow,
of embodied life?

Sometimes, when life gets hard, it is tempting to think so, and there is no lack of theological endorsements for a strict dualism between heaven and earth, between human and divine. But the whole point of the incarnation, the embedding of God into the human condition, is to affirm the union of heaven and earth, not their separation.

Christ did not come among us only to leave us behind in the end.
And the Resurrection, far from dismissing embodied life as a prison house,
something we need to escape from,
shows it to be worthy of eternal preservation and affirmation.

Then what is the meaning of this mysterious Ascension story, which is told only by Luke, by the way? None of the other gospel writers found it necessary to paint a literal picture of Jesus’ departure from the visible world. Since they did not go beyond the story of Jesus, they could conclude their account with him still around, not yet departed. Unlike Luke, they didn’t go on to tell the story of what happened next, when Jesus was no longer present in the way he had been in his earthly ministry, or in the resurrection appearances, which themselves also came to an end.

But once those unique experiences did cease to occur, the early Church had to adjust to the physical absence of Jesus. And in order to tell that story, Luke needed to remove Jesus from the stage. So he showed him ascending into a cloud. It is a lovely image, that expressive and resonant vertical metaphor for transcendence.

But in his Ascension story, Luke doesn’t provide the kind of detail expected of realistic narrative. He doesn’t try to make us believe Jesus went away just so. No special effects required. It’s simply “now you see him, now you don’t.”
We’ve all watched the sun go away on a cloudy day. Maybe it was like that.

Luke might have had Jesus disappear around a corner, or over a hill.
Or the disciples might have looked away for a moment, or blinked,
missing the exact moment of vanishing.
But the cloud is a nice touch. Artists have always loved it.
In any event, Jesus is suddenly gone.

The essential part of Luke’s story is not the means of Jesus’ departure,
but the meaning of his absence:
Where is he now, and will we ever see him again?

In a sense, Jesus is always going away.
Jesus never remains where we leave him.
Not in the tomb. Not in the sky. Not in the Bible.
Jesus comes to us out of the future, not the past.

It may take time to recognize the way his body will look the next time we see him.
It may look like a homeless man pushing his cart down the sidewalk,
the exhausted mother carrying her baby,
the victims of disaster and war on our televisions.
It may look like the face in the mirror,
or the ragtag band sharing bread and wine on a Sunday morning.
It may look like the whole wide world.

If the Incarnate One had clung to the body of a first century Jewish male,
God could have never become the rest of us.
Without that body to keep us fixated on past appearances,
we learn to see Christ everywhere.
The absence following the Ascension creates an emptiness
which God can fill with a new, expanded “body.”

British theologian Graham Ward celebrates the Ascension as an image of the “transcorporeal” nature of Christ’s body, which is always becoming something else, something larger, something more.

It can’t be comprehended, grasped, pinned down or exhausted.
Always pouring itself out, always being transfigured,
it does not remain a discreet, locatable object that is “here” or “not here,”
lost from sight behind a cloud or kicking back in some place called heaven
where we may venerate it from afar.

“The specificity of his body is unstable from the beginning,” writes Ward. “Jesus’ body is extendible, can expand to incorporate other bodies, make them extensions of his own.”

In other words, his body is not erased by the cross, the tomb or the ascension.
It is expanded.
We ourselves become part of it, as we discover that our own bodies,
instead of being the self-enclosure of solitary egos living in and for ourselves,
are part of a larger, permeable, interdependent existence.
Never complete in ourselves,
we are inseparable from what is outside us and beyond us.

Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ under our feet,
Christ within us, Christ over us, let all around us be Christ.

If you want to see Jesus, don’t stand looking up into the heavens.
Just look around right where you are.

I read a story in The Christian Century magazine about a regional gathering of Lutherans that happened to fall on Ascension Day. The planning committee was trying to think of ideas for the liturgy, and someone suggested blowing out the Paschal Candle after the Ascension story was read.

The Paschal Candle is first lit at the Easter Vigil. A cantor sings, “The Light of Christ,” and everyone responds, “Thanks be to God!” This great candle then burns as a symbol of the risen Christ at every liturgy throughout the fifty days of Easter, ending with Pentecost Sunday. To blow it out at the Ascension would certainly be dramatic, but to make such a literal representation, as if the Easter presence were somehow being extinguished, would be not only be a little depressing but also very misleading.

Jesus did not vanish like smoke, never to return.
He came again in the fire of empowering Spirit.
And in the meantime, in the space between the Ascension and Pentecost,
in that time of absence and waiting which every believer knows all too well,
there is room to discover the new ways Christ is being manifested in our life together
as the community and communion of God’s friends..

W. H. Auden said that when a writer dies, he becomes his readers.
So we might say that when Jesus ascended, he became the Church.

And what about those Lutherans? What did they finally decide to do in that liturgy? The Paschal Candle was indeed extinguished after the reading of the Ascension gospel. But before this happened, just when the reader finished, a dancer entered, moving among the people with a collection of hand candles, lighting them one by one from the Paschal Candle, and offering them to each of the worshippers. Once everyone had a lighted candle, the dancer bowed before the Paschal Candle, and put it out. The smoke rose up and disappeared into the air. But the room remained full of light, as all those little flames flickered in the hands of the people.

The Light of Christ was not something they had watched disappear.
The Light of Christ was something they themselves had become.