Midnight Mass and Misremembrance

Joe George

Editor’s note:This post contains spoilers for Midnight Mass.

“Do this in remembrance of me.”

These words, quoted from Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24, are central to the sacrament of Communion. They do not just add weight to the acts of drinking wine and eating bread, recalling the final meal Jesus shared with his closest friends. They also command us to continue Jesus’s radical welcome, even these centuries after his death.

The words have rarely sounded as meaningful as when they are spoken by Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) at the end of the first episode of the Netflix series Midnight Mass. He infuses each line with such joy and sincerity that he wins over every skeptical parishioner sitting in the pews. When they came to mass that morning, residents of the tiny fishing village of Crockett Island expected to see their aged but beloved priest, Father John Pruitt. The sudden appearance of a much younger man shocked them, but they cannot help but be moved by his serving of the Lord’s Supper.

In the episodes that follow, Father Paul revitalizes the church. It truly seems like God has blessed Crockett Island, bringing healing to the beleaguered town. But this is a horror series created by Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor). Things are not what they seem with Father Paul.

Evil clergymen are a common horror trope. But where The Night of the Hunter’s Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) or Poltergeist II’s Reverend Henry Kane (Julian Beck) commit spiritual abuse by using Christianity to exploit others, Father Paul only wants to serve his church. Played with charisma and vulnerability by Linklater, Father Paul wishes to share with the people of Crockett the gift that he has been given.

Flanagan reveals that gift in the third episode, “Book III: Proverbs.” Father Paul sits in a confessional booth and admits that he lied to the congregation about Monsignor Pruitt. He said that Pruitt had taken ill and is resting in a mainland hospital. But in truth, Father Paul is Father John.

Stricken with dementia while on a trip to Jerusalem, Father John encountered a winged creature who fell upon him. When he awoke, Father John discovered that he had been healed. His dementia was gone and he was several decades younger. To viewers, it is clear this creature is a vampire and that the gifts it bestows upon Father John come at a great cost. But convinced that he’s experienced a miracle from God, Father Paul cannot help but see the creature (Quinton Boisclair) as anything but an angel.

Things are not what they seem with Father Paul.

In his confession, Father Paul asks God to forgive him for lying to the church about his identity. But he remains confident that he’s helping his congregation by preparing them for a similar transformation. Throughout the scene, Flanagan inserts shots of wood carvings depicting Father Paul’s story. The first few mirror the devotional art you’d find in any church, showing the elderly Father John walking through the Holy Land. Cinematographer Michael Fimognari pushes in slowly on each carving, bathing it in the solemn glow of a candle flickering off-screen. But as Father Paul recounts his interactions with the “angel,” the carvings become horrific. Blood flows from Father John’s neck as the creature drinks from him. The candlelight that once seemed holy now imbues the carvings with a menacing glow.

We see that Father Paul is becoming a vampire. But Father Paul sees only that he’s received the gift of eternal life promised in scripture. When he returns to the island, bringing along the vampire that turned him, Father Paul believes that he’s sharing with the community the miracle that he’s received.

Whenever he experiences or does something clearly wrong, Father Paul finds justification in scripture. He may have been terrified by the vampire, but so were the shepherds before a host of angels. He may have accidentally killed a troubled townsperson and drank his blood, but God’s judgments are unsearchable. Even putting the vampire’s blood in the communion wine, thus secretly infecting all his parishioners, is an example of being shrewd as a snake and innocent as a dove in order to continue God’s work.

How could a man as kind as Father Paul make such a mistake? How could he regard a vampire as an angel? How could he forget his namesake’s warning that “you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too”?

We get something of an answer in the framing of the confessional scene. Most of the shots feature Father Paul in profile, light from the booth illuminating his otherwise obscured face. But when the camera shows Father Paul looking through the screen, we see that the other end is empty. Father Paul isn’t talking to anyone when justifying his actions, not even God.

As Rachel Held Evans writes, part of what we are called to remember when participating in the Lord’s Supper is the depth of Christ’s love: “Remember how God became one of us? Remember how God ate with us and drank with us, laughed with us and cried with us? Remember how God suffered for us, and died for us, and gave his life for the life of the world? Remember? Remember?”

The key word there is “us.” Christ ate with and laughed with and suffered for us, no matter who we were or what we did. If we forget Christ’s example of loving people, then we run the risk of transforming his words and deeds into something monstrous. Father Paul deceives himself into thinking he is serving his congregation, but in reality he is serving his own vampiric needs.

As Midnight Mass reaches its climax, it fully reveals the horror inflicted by even well-meaning Christians who fail to love those for whom Jesus died. But it also serves as a cautionary tale, one that desperately asks us to remember what Christ did. It asks us to remember the radical love and acceptance he showed when he invited us all to sit at his table.

Topics: TV