“Look out your window, baby, there’s a scene you’d like to catch/The band is playing “Dixie,” a man got his hand outstretched/Could be the Führer/Could be the local priest/You know sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.
“He got a sweet gift of gab, he got a harmonious tongue/He knows every song of love that ever has been sung/Good intentions can be evil/Both hands can be full of grease/You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace” (Bob Dylan, “Man of Peace,” Infidels).
In the Epistle reading for St. Michael and All Angels (September 29) from Revelation 12, John has a vision of war in heaven: Michael and his angels fight against “the dragon” and his angels. The dragon: “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:7-9). And this deceiver and his “angels,” or messengers, are thrown down to the earth. Since they can no longer attack “God and His Christ” directly, they attack those on the earth who belong to Christ.
[SPOILERS AHEAD FOR MIDNIGHT MASS]
What is interesting about the theologically and ritually literate Midnight Mass (2021; streaming on Netflix) is the difficulty that the townspeople—and we—have in deciding whether the newly arrived Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) is good or evil. (“Could be the local priest.”) Through most of the first half of the series we might have suspicions, but good things are happening! There are miracles. People seem to grow younger and the afflictions of age (back pain, glasses, dementia) seem to reverse themselves.
And the people want to believe. We want to believe. Crockett Island is impoverished, in part thanks to an insufficient oil-spill settlement negotiated by Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan). They need some help and some hope. Bev, the most unctuously pious person, is the most thoroughly evil, but that is mainly because she thinks she’s doing the most good for the best reasons. (“Good intentions can be evil/Both hands can be full of grease.”) And that position is emboldened and crystallized by her association with Father Paul, to the point where she is committed to going further than he.
But what has happened to the long-serving monsignor, Father Pruitt? Paul easily lies about his status, but we don’t find out why he is lying until the end of episode three. And we realize that in spite of his stirring sermons and, honestly, good pastoral work, he has been deceiving not only the residents of Crockett Island, but also himself. And the nature of that deception, which we can see clearly, gets at the heart of one of the parallels drawn by the entire series: in the Mass, the blood of Christ is drunk. What if it’s not the blood of Christ, but some other blood?
Obviously, this binary good and evil parallel of blood has a long pedigree, at least back to Bram Stoker. The idea of the vampire is, at least initially, the inverse of the Sacrament of the Altar. Though modern theologies like to downplay the significance of blood, both of the Hebrew sacrifices and the New Testament blood atonement of Jesus, you cannot read the Scriptures and escape the pervasive, saturating presence of blood.
The life is in the blood. Therefore, you don’t murder; therefore, you don’t drink the blood of the sacrifices; therefore, there is a separation at the time of a woman’s menstruation. The life is in the blood. Therefore, Christ—who is the Life—says, “Drink; this is the new testament in My blood.” This is why you cannot drink the blood of the sacrifices: because they cannot give you eternal life. They are a sign pointing to the one who is to come, in whose lifeblood there is eternal life. Now you can drink the blood of this Sacrifice.
A vampire is precisely the reverse: a dead/undead creature who prolongs its life by drinking blood, but it will never be alive anymore. Its life ended; now its death is perpetually prolonged in a parody of life. Writer/director Mike Flanagan sees this clearly and explores it throughout Midnight Mass. I suspect he probably comes to a contrary conclusion based on that parallel, but the parallel is there nonetheless. By this central piece, he is also able to explore the compelling nature of religion, hope, deception, and the thin line between good and evil, especially among human beings with their impossibly tangled good-and-evil mixture of motive and action.
In Midnight Mass, Satan comes as a man of peace. As in the real world, it takes some time before he is unmasked. The claims are all related in some way to Christian claims: eternal life, resurrection, no more death. But when those things are exposed as the evil converse of the Christian claims, it is difficult to resist the temptation to become cynical about that ambiguity, in people and in the world. Perhaps the Christian claims are no different; perhaps they are just as evil. The counterpart to Satan coming as a man of peace is Christianity appearing as a force of destruction. But the false prophet is always revealed in the end.
More basically, the step between true Christianity and a distortion of it into cultism is a short one. Prove your faith; show that you really love God, that you really believe; “take a step out of the boat and onto the water.” These are human manipulations of faith, but how easily we exchange them for the real thing. As in Saint Maud, so it is in Midnight Mass: far more important than the external Word (although there is far more of the actual Scriptures in Midnight Mass) is the step beyond, to some other fulfillment of that Word than in Christ, to an inner god, which is really an inner demon. “We are the wolves,” Pruitt finally recognizes.
In the final episodes, what began as “faith” is unmasked as just another attempt to bring the promise of Christ (“the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”) ahead of time, before we see Jesus as He is. Isn’t that what every cult is, finally? Beyond the charismatic leader (and the full selfish megalomania of Father Paul/Monsignor Pruitt is revealed, though mitigated in the finale), underneath the manipulation and the separation from “the world,” there is a desire to bring the Kingdom of God in its fullness and in its completion, for us to bring about what only Jesus can bring about, and to bring it about for the select few, for the chosen. Cults, like sects, cannot wait; they have no future. They have within them the seeds of their own destruction. Only the true Church can wait in fearless patience.
Midnight Mass, though, is a third answer to the way life in this world is, neither the cult nor the Church. In the end of the series, there is both salvation and judgment. The characters we want to see saved are saved and the Bev Keanes get their fiery judgment. But the answer of the series to the questions human ask is in the mouth of Erin Greene (Kate Siegel), before she dies: a nicely spiritual-but-not-religious mixture of Buddhist, pantheist, gnostic wishful thinking, which we have no more cause to believe than any of the other things.
It seems easy within the world of the show: clearly, organized religion leads inexorably to this kind of corruption. The only way out is a kumbaya, we-are-one-with-the-universe-and-the-universe-is-God absorption (although Annie [Kristin Lehman] and Ed Flynn [Henry Thomas] offer a sort of alternative). It’s a tempting thought, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem, which isn’t Christianity or even religion in general, but the human beings who turn it toward themselves and their own self-deifying ends. And the destruction we wreak cries out to be rectified, not dissolved. It is for this reason, for both the evil in me and the evil in the world, that I find anything less than full-blooded (!) resurrection and the full restoration of all things to be an ineffective panacea.
So while I can’t go where Mike Flanagan and Midnight Mass go, this is probably the best show of the year; better, in my opinion, even than Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House. The setting is perfect. The music is perfect. The main characters feel fully realized. And it gave me one of the only genuine jump-scares I have had in a long time! But more significantly, obviously, it is worth considering the blurry boundaries between what we as Christians do, and what people might use Christianity to do. St. Paul was no stranger to this confusion: “And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15). And so it does.