I believe in the Holy Spirit
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
— from the Apostles’ Creed
“A friend from high school who ended up becoming a pastor recently said to me that pastors have to be very careful not to remake the gospel into their own image.
But my question was, “Isn’t that unavoidable?”
— Lucas Hnath, preface to The Christians
The church community I was raised in spent precious little time on communion. Pentecostal evangelical Christianity, a deeply fundamentalist branch focused on revivalism, tends to abandon much of traditional Christian practice in favor of the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues, baptism of the Holy Spirit, miracles, and prophecy—emotional highs over scripted services. If you’ve seen the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, you’ve seen exactly how I was raised, with a great deal of hysteria and radicalism and not a whole lot of thoughtful theology. In the words of every evangelical I knew, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” I’m still not entirely sure what that means.
Communion, traditionally known as the Eucharist or the sacrament, is a reenactment of the Last Supper, an honoring of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples before he was crucified. In liturgical traditions such as the Catholic, Episcopal, and Christian Orthodox churches, the Eucharist is practiced every service. In the Roman Catholic church, the doctrine of transubstantiation states that the consecrated bread and communion wine quite literally take on the properties of the blood and body of Christ. Despite a literal interpretation of much of scripture, most fundamental evangelicals prefer metaphor when it comes to the body and blood. For the most part, they don’t even use wine. Communion at my church was an afterthought. We partook once a month instead of every service, and passed around a tray of grape juice in individual thimble-sized plastic cups. A dilution of a drink for a dilution of a belief. Followed by a tray of crackers, it felt more like a snack than a ceremony.
When I left the evangelical church in my early 20s for a turn in a Greek Orthodox community, followed by several years in the Episcopal tradition, the darkness of the Eucharist bowled me over. There was a sacredness I had not yet understood. In the Greek Orthodox church, I wasn’t allowed to participate in communion because I wasn’t baptized as orthodox. I watched old women with covered heads walk slowly to the altar to receive the sacrament as if it were their life’s blood, and then come to me to pass a blessing: fresh baked bread. My hands would be full to overflowing by the end. In the Episcopal church, I took those slow walks myself every Sunday, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, consenting to accept the body and blood of Christ. For the first time, I contemplated those actions and those words. Even without transubstantiation, doesn’t the act of communion in and of itself make us cannibals? Vampires? We eat the body and drink the blood, Christ in our mouth, one step closer to eternity.
I knew exactly where Midnight Mass was headed halfway through the first episode, when the new young priest offers up the communion wine and recites the centuries-old words: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it. This is my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.”
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” Luke 2:9, King James Version
Midnight Mass is set in the small, fictional town of Crockett Island, a tiny fishing village with a devoted, albeit miniscule, church community. In the first episode, the sleepy town is abuzz with the arrival of two characters. Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns home after four years in prison; Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater), a young and animated priest, arrives instead of the aging Monsignor Pruitt, longtime father of Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church, whose return they’d been anticipating. During his first Sunday Mass, Father Paul informs them that Monsignor Pruitt fell ill on his pilgrimage, and the diocese has sent Father Paul as a replacement while Pruitt recovers on the mainland. The congregation is instantly enamored of their new charismatic leader, whose passionate homilies resemble my former evangelical church more than any liturgical service. He thumps the pulpit and speaks in biblical literalism: “Communion—the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. A metaphor? No. God tells us. Miracles—walking on water, rising from the dead. Abstracts? No! God tells us!” He bounces on stage, sweats, and proclaims that he doesn’t have all the answers, and that the only certainty with God are his mysteries—a pentecostal sermon if I’ve ever heard one.
Shortly after Father Paul’s arrival, the first of many miracles occurs. In what appears to be a cruel joke, the young priest refuses the sacrament to Leeza Scarborough (Annarah Cymone), a teenage girl paralyzed from the waist down, until she stands from her wheelchair and walks to him. Somehow, she does. Word of Leeza’s miraculous recovery spreads fast, and, within a day, a crowd gathers at the door to Father Paul’s home, asking for healing. Leeza and her parents walk door to door, evangelizing for the parish, handing out flyers of “The Miracle of Saint Patrick’s.” Each Sunday, the pews grow more crowded.
Throughout the next few weeks, the signs and wonders continue, but not everyone in town is convinced. Erin Green (Kate Siegel), who’s pregnant when we first meet her, suddenly finds herself with an empty uterus and blood tests that say she was never pregnant at all. Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), a newcomer who, with his son Ali, is ostracized for his Muslim faith, expresses concern at a town meeting about the Bibles being handed out at the public school. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), the local doctor who has been treating her mother Mildred’s (Alex Essoe) rapidly declining dementia, cannot comprehend her mother’s sudden transformation to not only health, but youth—nor can she explain the vial after vial of blood that bursts in the sunlight of her window. All the while, Father Paul continues to tell the congregation that Monsignor Pruitt is resting on the mainland.
Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), the local holier-than-thou and right hand of the parish, is the first to discover Father Paul’s secret. He is in fact their elderly Monsignor Pruitt made young again. On his pilgrimage, he was bitten by a creature he refers to as an Angel of the Lord. He says it was the blood of the angel that restored his youth. However, it isn’t until Father Paul, witnessed by Bev and others, mysteriously dies and is resurrected moments later that the real transformation takes place: he burns in the sun and is hungry—starving—for blood.
All of these events take place during Lent, the 40 days before Easter that represent the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before the crucifixion. In the gospels, Jesus spends the time fasting and warding off temptation from Satan. In much of Christian tradition, fasting and praying against temptation are staples of the Lenten season. It’s a time of withholding and contemplation. Father Paul, after his miraculous resurrection, prays feverishly against the temptation of the blood, but can no longer sustain his fast when Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet), the town drunk, enters his home. Bev finds Father Paul the next morning huddled in a corner covered in Joe’s blood, Joe’s body lifeless on the floor. “Okay,” she says. “Okay.” In that moment, she agrees to everything that will come next with unquestioning faith. “Do not cherry-pick the glories of God,” she shouts at the mayor, Wade (Michael Trucco), when he balks at Joe’s dead body. The violence must be accepted alongside the mercy if you want to keep the miracles that have been given.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” Luke 2:10, New International Version
Father Paul acknowledges that God’s angels of the Bible are fucking terrifying. No one in scripture is ever thrilled to be greeted by one. God sent angels to impregnate teenage girls (Mary, mother of Jesus), to murder firstborns (the plagues), to instill fear when he thought his people were going astray (too many to name). He doesn’t send them with muffins and tea. He sends them for his dirty work. However, it’s precisely this fear that solidifies Father Paul’s resolve that the creature is in fact an angel of God.
Father Paul believes, as many fundamentalists do, that suffering is the road to purity. There’s a relishment in pain and fear because it means a reward on the other side—a storing up of riches in heaven. It’s viewed as a gift from God rather than a malicious action of a narcissistic, all-powerful being. Suffering marks someone as chosen for a test, worthy of a challenge directly from God. The greater the suffering, the greater the reward. The Suffering Olympics, as some of my ex-evangelical friends refer to it. This foundational belief leads a few people on the island to ignore concern and follow along with what is so clearly horrific.
“But those who suffer he delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction.” Job 36:15, New International Version
What happens when you strip away the mythology of Christianity and experience it fundamentally? Transubstantiation: the body of Christ, the literal flesh of Christ, the fat between your teeth and the blood—iron rich, metallic—on your tongue. Father Paul rips away any metaphor and gives the congregants his reality of the story of Easter—an actual death, an actual resurrection. In the penultimate episode, during the titular midnight mass, Father Paul finally reveals his identity to the congregants and tells them that they, too, can receive the gift of the angel who appears before them in the church. He offers each of them a cup of poison and the promise of eternal life, here and now.
There’s a paganism in what follows, a sacrifice. This horrific and painful death opens the congregation up not only to immortality but to unrestricted violence—a feast after the fasting of Lent. The holy becomes the profane. They tear each other apart to taste blood. “This is my body. Take it and eat,” Jesus said. Led by Bev, the hungry congregants move outside to the town, gorging on whoever they find. Missionaries of a bloodlust evangelism.
The resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Mike Flanagan, the show’s creator, writer, and showrunner, calls this show his passion project. Before The Haunting of Bly Manor, before The Haunting of Hill House, he unsuccessfully pitched Midnight Mass to multiple networks in 2014, including its eventual home, Netflix. Unlike his other works, mostly adapted from novels, Midnight Mass is based on Flanagan’s personal experience, having grown up in the Roman Catholic church as an altar boy. He writes from a place of knowing, which I recognized instantly. When it comes to religion, I’m generally not interested in stories told by those who don’t understand it from the inside. It’s easy to belie religion if you’ve never lived with it as community, as family, as your sole source of hope. It takes a trauma and a betrayal to write the frenetic hysteria of Christianity with such acute conflict. There’s anger, but there’s also a love we can never quite shake, however much it hurts us. There’s something about listening to biblical scripture or hymns that feels like coming home, with all the complications going home brings—like hearing a language I still understand but no longer speak. Nostalgia, grief, disgust, curiosity.
Flanagan doesn’t over-explain any of the biblical metaphor. In fact, he uses biblical text directly, quoting scripture without much extraneous interpretation. Particularly with Father Paul and Bev Keane, scripture is called upon to justify all manner of actions, and the interpretation is in the way the scripture is used, which is exactly the challenge and problem of religion. We live in a completely different time and place, and yet ancient texts are used to justify present actions, always out of context and usually in hate, though rarely named as such. Flanagan is simply holding a mirror up so we can see these characters, and ourselves, for what we are: terrified of death and desperate for justification for our basest desires.
In an interview with The Wrap, Flanagan said, “This scripture can be so easily manipulated to fit an agenda, even one as ridiculous as the one we were using. That’s scary. That should scare us, especially if we’re going to say, or some of us are going to claim, that this book was written by God. That this book is a holy scripture. It can be weaponized very easily and context can be absolutely upended. And that’s something I think that everyone should be wary of, faithful or not.”
My best friend from college told me recently that she found herself wishing she still prayed. We grew up in the same traditions and found similar trajectories through the Episcopal church before finally entering into the unknown lands outside of religion. We commiserate about the grief, the loss, the loneliness of leaving. It’s more than leaving a community. As she described, it’s leaving the idea of a being, an almighty God, who knows you utterly and holds you in his hand. For the introverted, the melancholy, the othered, this loss is a particularly crushing possibility. Whatever questions I had about the tenets of faith, this idea was the last thing I held onto, white-knuckled, until I finally realized that my hands had always been empty. I had been praying to nothing. I had not been created; I had not been known.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23, New International Version
Watching Father Paul in constant feverish prayer, I found myself absentmindedly praying along with him. After finishing the show, prayers silently escaped my lips. Prayers that were more conversation than anything else. The way I used to pray. I had been taught to be in constant communication with God. This is the communion, the Eucharist, of evangelicals, and I leaned all the way in, training my thoughts. As a lonely kid, as a queer kid who believed I was inherently sinful and wrong, my belief in a perpetual forgiveness if I prayed hard enough, consistent enough, was my only hope for salvation. My prayer was rooted in fear—fear of hell, of celestial rejection, of an eternal darkness kept at bay solely by a constant hum of praise and worship, fear and trembling. Father Paul’s prayer is the communion of his fear and belief. He’s troubled, terrified of the angel, by what he believes is God’s will. He can see no other way than to doggedly push forward and bring his loved ones with him.
Linklater’s Father Paul is full of truth, full of belief, full of love, full of fear. The four tenets of a true believer, the marbled cornerstones I ping-ponged between for nearly three decades, constantly bruised, trying to make sense of an idea of the Bible and of a savior that was given to me in rigid and static images. Every choice Father Paul makes is only decided after a lengthy time at each of those pillars; even so, each choice leads him further into the dark. Ultimately, he’s selfish, as we all are. He chooses the love of a woman and his secret child over the safety of his congregation. As he tells Mildred in the final episode, Father Paul brings the angel back to Crockett for the sole purpose of keeping her and Sarah from death. He doesn’t allow anyone to choose for themselves. He lies. He manipulates. All in the name of Christ, in the name of love. Full of belief that his fear is proof of God’s will, he molds and shapes God into an image of his own creation.
Father Paul had insisted that this new way of living was free from shame. He tells Riley that he felt no guilt after killing Joe. He was simply enacting the will of God, already laid out before him. All of his actions had been planned, and there was no need for shame. It’s this belief in a lack of choice that pushes the congregants to give in without question to their new bloodthirst. They’re enacting God’s will not only for themselves, but for those they attack as well.
The great literary twist of Midnight Mass is that, after all that, their salvation is also their sin, and it is entirely earthly, entirely finite—scratching and clawing at your neighbor to taste a brief eternity. The angel’s gift betrays Father Paul utterly. His daughter dies in his arms after refusing his blood. Bev, enacting her own version of God’s will, begins deciding who gets to be saved and who will burn. There is no heaven, only an extended existence expelled from the light. It’s the fall—the original sin—and Father Paul has ushered them all into it. He wanted to rebuild the Garden of Eden, and here he was, having eaten the wrong fruit, being expelled in perpetuity. “We got this wrong,” he says to Bev at the end. “We are the wolves.”
In the final episode, after the raging fire encouraged by Bev eventually traps all the newly immortal, the weight of their violent actions sinks in. They’re not free from shame or guilt. The violence wasn’t God’s will. It was a choice. Their choice. “Will you forgive me, kid?” Sturge (Matt Biedel) asks an altar boy. The only thing they have left is forgiveness—of each other, of themselves. The heresy of granting their own absolution!
The communion of saints. The forgiveness of sins.
What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
When I finally left the church for good, I realized that I didn’t need forgiveness from a being I couldn’t see or feel or hear. I didn’t need forgiveness from a character in a story from 2000 years ago. I needed forgiveness from my friends who I had hurt in the name of zealous Christianity. I needed forgiveness from my dad, who I had—as directed by my church leaders when I was only 15 years old—publicly denounced because he didn’t attend church. When Ali Hassan (Rahul Abburi) says to his terrified father, “I choose God,” and drinks the poison, Bev praises his “courage” to stand against his father, just as my church leaders praised me. I condemned people I loved for stepping out of strict, imaginary lines. I cut them down, judged, evangelized, and believed I was showing them the way to eternal life. I couldn’t see that I was bleeding them because it felt good, because I was hungry. In desperation for my own salvation, just like Bev, I would do anything to get there. “You aren’t a good person,” Annie Flynn (Kristin Lehman) tells Bev in the final episode. “God doesn’t love you more than anyone else. You aren’t a hero and you certainly, certainly aren’t a victim.”
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19 New Revised Standard Version
What I have found, what the people of Crockett Island begin to discover in their final moments, is more sacredness, more joy, more grace without the presence of eternity. When you know there is an end—a finite, silent end—life on this earth becomes a whirlwind of Time. “More galaxies in the universe than grains of sand on the beach. And that’s what we’re talking about when we say ‘God,’ the one—the cosmos and its infinite dreams. We are the cosmos dreaming of itself…and I am all of it,” Erin says as she dies, “I am everything. I am all. I am that I am.” She describes herself using the words God uttered to Moses at the burning bush: I am that I am—just one small piece of everything, one small piece of god. Without eternity, you see salvation right in front of you. You notice. Single moments are stretched out into their own kind of everlasting life. You stare into your lover’s eyes. You ask forgiveness. You sing a hymn in the light of your impending death. You watch the sunrise over the harbor. You smile while it burns you up.