Breaking Bread: Midnight Mass and the Inversion of the Eucharist
**This article contains spoilers for the Netflix series Midnight Mass.**
Last week, for the first time in 18 months, my wife and I received the Eucharist. March 2020 led us, like so many others, to self-isolation, and that included the church we’d regularly attended for the last year. However, even as most aspects of society have reopened in recent months, neither of us quite felt ready to take that step back into corporate religious fellowship.
A large part of our hesitance to return was due to a continued desire for preserving the lives of those around us, as we waited for vaccination, herd immunity, and the like. But as time went on, we both came to realize that our aversion to Sunday morning was also born of a desire to make sense of our relationship to the church—to reconstruct a religious identity after a series of years that illuminated the corruption festering in the heart of evangelical spaces.
We’re still on that path of recovery, like many others, and won’t be leaving it anytime soon, but last week, with a deep breath and a slightly elevated heart rate, we stepped inside the historic Episcopal church a few blocks down the road, and received communion with our city.
As the priest proclaimed that morning, the Eucharist is the central mystery of the Christian faith: the dinner table that reminds us Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. The shared meal that calls attention to our immanent mortality, juxtaposed against the restoration to come. The Eucharist allows us to ask (and respond to) the questions at the heart of religious thought: Why do we live? Why do we die? And what happens after our curtain calls?
These are also the questions that beat within the characters of Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix horror series, fittingly titled Midnight Mass. The Eucharist plays a key role in the unfolding of this intricate plot, centered on a burgeoning group of religious fanatics in an isolated, run-down fishing village. But unlike lighter horror fare, the religious imagery is not mere window dressing. Flanagan, a former Catholic himself who served as an altar boy for over 12 years, invites his audience into a thoughtful tale about religious abuse, the twisting of truth, the fear of death, and what it means to find communion in the face of uncertainty.
Midnight Mass begins with the arrival of two men to the small town of Crockett Island. Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) is returning to his family after his release from prison for a drunk driving accident that killed a young woman. Once a devout Catholic, Riley spent his time in prison searching the sacred texts of various faiths before declaring himself a rationalist. As Riley settles into his new life, the island also welcomes Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a young priest, who has been sent by the Diocese to fill in for the old and ailing Monsignor Pruitt as he convalesces on the mainland.
Though the local church, St. Patrick’s, is run-down and dwindling in congregants, it functions as a center of civic life. Many of the fishermen and their families who live on Crockett Island attend, including Riley’s parents, the mayor and his family, and Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan), a local schoolteacher and fiercely ardent believer.
The arrival of Father Paul coincides with a number of inexplicable happenings on the island. Hundreds of dead cats wash up on shore, seemingly drained of blood. Mysterious creatures and strangers are spotted in the darkness of night. But most importantly, the island becomes a hotbed of miraculous works. At Sunday morning mass, Father Paul commands the mayor’s paralyzed daughter, Leeza, to stand and receive the Eucharist, and to everyone’s surprise, she does. People’s injuries and ailments are inexplicably healed. And Mildred (Alex Essoe), an older woman suffering from dementia whom Father Paul has been visiting to administer the sacraments, looks younger and more energetic every day.
These miracles cause everyone on the island to reckon with their faith—or lack thereof. Suddenly, St. Patrick’s pews are filled to the brim each Sunday with people looking for miracles of their own. Riley seeks rational answers to these events, while dialoguing with Father Paul himself during court-ordered AA meetings. Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli), an earnest and faithful Muslim, struggles with the casual racism of the town toward him, as well as his teenage son’s newfound interest in St. Patrick’s.
Crockett Island quickly becomes a cult of celebrity, as people desperate for hope and renewal crowd around the young priest, looking for purpose. But, as the show progresses, the dark truth behind this religious revival comes to light.
We learn that Father Paul is the old Monsignor Pruitt, supernaturally given his youth again. Pruitt was lost during a trip to the Holy Land, and discovers within some abandoned ruins an ancient, eldritch creature, who hides from the sunlight and feeds on his blood (There’s a certain word that comes to mind that might describe the creature, but Flanagan faithfully avoids using it, so I’ll attempt to do the same).
With the creature’s blood in his system, Pruitt dies and comes back to life with newfound strength. He smuggles the creature back with him to Crockett Island and has been secretly feeding the creature’s blood to the villagers through the sacraments. Those who drink from the cup quite literally have new life, at the price of a grave deception.
A true believer himself, Pruitt understands this deception as a necessary evil, in order to bring about divine resurrection on earth. Pruitt’s resurrection, however, requires him to feed on others, just like the creature. And it’s here that Flanagan begins his exploration of religious abuse.
At the heart of Pruitt’s revival is a lie, and that lie requires him to exact violence on others so that he can maintain power and reject his own mortality. Those who fall victim to these feedings are, unsurprisingly, the outcasts and pariahs of Crockett Island, those shunned by its more upstanding citizens. In order to hide this violence and abuse, Pruitt enlists his most ardent followers, such as Bev and the mayor and his wife.
To further conceal these acts, Pruitt regularly enlists the use of Scripture and religious tradition. In a fascinating exchange with Riley during an AA meeting, Pruitt uses Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer to justify his actions, winsomely conflating what can be changed with what cannot, and deliberately rejecting the wisdom to know the difference. At mass, he speaks of the mystery of faith, the beauty of resurrection, and the imminence of Christ’s return, as ways to cement his congregation’s trust in him. And, like many who use the confluence of religion and power for personal gain, over time, he co-opts the words of Christ for his own gain, telling people, “You know who I am,” asking them to see “the marks on my hands” and “put your hands into my side.”
If it all sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been living it. The supernatural horrors Pruitt inflicts on his congregants are woefully analogous to physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse that has come to light in the church in recent years. Incidentally, I finished Midnight Mass the same weekend I finally finished Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus & John Wayne, which concludes with an extended chapter on how evangelical leaders have regularly used the words of God to conceal vile acts, using faith to prey on those who have been dismissed and marginalized in the church. As she writes, these leaders preached a vision “that promised protection for women but left women without defense, one that worshiped power and turned a blind eye to justice, and one that transformed the Jesus of the Gospels into an image of their own making.” And when the God you preach is nothing more than a simulacrum of your own shadow, it’s easy to justify wrongs against the least of these for your own ends.
This is why the metaphor that Midnight Mass presents is so striking and prescient. At its heart, abuse is a reversal of the Eucharist. Instead of saying, “This is my blood, shed for you,” it says, “This is your blood, shed for me,” a stark image which Flanagan literalizes through Pruitt’s monstrous transformation. It’s a subversion of the cruciform act.
That said, the show is not without its Christ figures. In the fifth episode, appropriately titled “Gospel,” Riley is turned into the same creature as Pruitt. He, too, is now faced with Pruitt’s dilemma, where the only way he can prolong his existence is to feed on the life of others. But unlike Pruitt, he lays down his life, using his final moments to warn his newfound love, Erin (Kate Siegel), of the dangers and to ask her to save as many others as possible, before burning to death in the light of the sun.
It’s this sacrificial act of love that ultimately catalyzes the end of Pruitt’s cult. Erin enlists the help of Sheriff Hassan, the town doctor, Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish), and Riley’s parents (Henry Thomas & Kristin Lehman) to resist Pruitt’s followers. This all comes to a head at the midnight Easter vigil, the climactic moment where Pruitt and Bev reveal the truth to their followers, and urge them to die and be turned into monsters themselves.
Nearly all of Crockett Island’s inhabitants, willingly or unwillingly, are transformed in that vigil, and the ensuing chaos results in all the island’s boats and buildings being destroyed, dooming all of the creatures to burn to death in the morning sun.
In this climax, Pruitt comes to understand the atrocities of his actions. He tore apart a community in a desperate attempt to conserve power and avoid the reality of his impending death. And now, as the sun rises, they all have no choice but to look their own death in the eye—and the uncertainty of what comes after.
Some find no peace; Bev’s zeal quickly turns into abject fear, with the sun meeting her on the beach, desperately trying to dig a hole in the ground. In contrast, Sheriff Hassan and his son reunite, kneeling on the beach to pray toward the rising sun as family.
The rest of St. Patrick’s convenes next to the church’s burned remains, and as they face their mortality, they join hands and sing “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” A group of people finding fellowship and forgiveness in their image-bearing neighbors, as they pass from one life to the next. One might argue it’s the only true church service in a story full of counterfeits.
In Midnight Mass, Flanagan proposes two paths in the face of death: taking the lives of others for the sake of self, or giving of yourself for the sake of others. On the former path, we see how religion can easily codify a culture of abuse, that allows the powerful to prey on the lowly through the use of beautiful words and promises of salvation. This cannot be ignored, and the integrity of the church depends on its adherents bringing light to those abuses, repenting of them, and seeking restitution. As Flanagan says in an interview, Midnight Mass depicts “how a well-intentioned faith can be corrupted, how it can be kind of weaponized, how people can be made to do things they otherwise never would” out of a belief that “God loves them more than he loves other people.”
In contrast, a belief in a deeper reality should rightfully call us to the latter path, to participate in the Lord’s Supper by giving of ourselves for the good of others. Riley’s mother frames this well in the show’s final episode: “Never made much sense to me. We all say there’s a heaven. And it’s waiting for us. Then we claw, fight, beg for a few more minutes at the end. Minutes.” Death is inevitable. And much of our liturgy in the Christian faith functions as memento mori: a reminder that we will die. Therefore, as we await the end—and the restoration that is to come after—Midnight Mass suggests that we welcome the end in communion and fellowship. Breaking bread with our brothers and sisters. Seeking justice, extending grace, and forgiving one another. Resting in both truth and uncertainty, together, as the sun slowly rises. Therefore, we proclaim the mystery of faith.