In the grand scheme of things, it may seem like an insignificant victory – but Eddie O’Neill sees it from a different vantage point. In July, Sunday services finally were begun for Christian prisoners at a medium-security London mental health unit – and the services included communion.
O’Neill was transferred to the mental health facility in January 2018, and discovered there were no Sunday services for Christians. His requests were ignored by administrators – at the same time that regular Friday prayers were being organized for Muslim in-patients.
According to the Church Times in England, O’Neill, 57 years old, has been in prison for ten years, and became a Christian behind bars. He testifies that he “grew up in care, and was abused by the system as a child and came into the adult world not knowing what God, family, and love are.” O’Neill is, by self-description, “a damaged person, a convicted criminal, but the only true redemption I have found in my life is hope in Jesus Christ.”
The facility eventually relented and provided a “spiritualist” to provide the sacraments. Without utilizing an appropriate liturgy, the spiritualist allegedly administered holy communion by merely saying, “Here you go.”
Eighteen months later, the injustice was rectified this past July when communion with the proper liturgy was offered. The Christian Legal Centre, who acted as O’Neill’s advocate, said that all the Christian patients wanted “was to have a service and holy communion on a Sunday, which recognized the hope they had in Jesus Christ, and to exercise their faith in him. This was not being taken seriously, and what the [mental health] centre was providing was wholly inappropriate ….”
For his crime, O’Neill is rightly serving his term in the hands of justice. Communion, at the same time, rightly wraps him in the redemptive arms of grace.
The Lord’s Supper, as it is called, has been controversial from the very beginning. Broken bodies and shed blood give ample room for justifiable misunderstanding and unjustified hostility. To those uninitiated in the faith, the ancient Christian ritual appears beyond strange and seemingly-Gothic. Through the eyes of faith, however, the sacraments are – to borrow from Augustine – an “outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace.”
In one sermon, Methodism’s founder John Wesley called communion “the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God.” On another occasion, he said, “As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls….”
I understand Wesley’s phraseology. Now more than ever, I cognizantly look forward to the first Sunday of every month when communion is served at my church. At this juncture in my spiritual life, the most vibrant 30 seconds of each month is when someone from my church looks me eye-to-eye and says, “The Body of Christ broken for you” and offers me the Bread of Life. Moments later, another church member says, “The Blood of Christ shed for you.” There, I dip into the Cup of Salvation.
Long ago at the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And, I do. It is one of his commands I faithfully, eagerly, and desperately obey. And something stirs. More than any other element on a Sunday morning, communion helps me to detect or perceive the presence of Christ. He is here. I recognize that communion is, for many of my Christian friends, more obligatory than sensory. We are all wired differently. But, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, communion mysteriously opens my eyes to Jesus.
Last year, I wiped away tears as I read the testimony of another prisoner who had been cut off from the Bread and Cup. While there was a volunteer-led Bible study at his prison, there was not a worship service and no Eucharist.
His Lutheran pastor tried many times to bring communion but was inexcusably thwarted as he was given the institutional runaround. Lee A. Moore was reduced to Sunday mornings spent communing “in spirit” with his congregation as he followed the liturgy from worship bulletins that his pastor sent. With “wine” made from water and grape jelly and a slice of bread from the mess hall, he joined – in the isolation of the prison – in sharing the body and blood of Christ.
“It may seem uncouth or even foolish to join in communion remotely, like a child having pretend tea in plastic cups, but these were vital moments of grace that preserved me in my time of desperate need,” Moore wrote in a moving article for Christianity Today.
He was eventually befriended by another prisoner who invited him to the Roman Catholic service. Although he was interested, Moore was vexed about the etiquette and asked about the rule banning non-Catholics from participation. The man smiled and put his hand on Moore’s shoulder. “This is prison,” he said. “Do you really think God cares if you steal some grace?”
The song of invitation at the service included these lines: “I am hope for all who are hopeless, I am eyes for those who long to see./ In the shadows of the night, I will be your light, come and rest in me.”
When the elements were offered, Moore held out his hands “overlapped and open to show both emptiness and the expectation of receiving something,” he wrote. He described feeling like a beggar “scrounging for the body of Christ.”
The song continued: “I am the strength for all the despairing, healing for the ones who dwell in shame./ All the blind will see, the lame will all run free, and all will know my name./ Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name./ Come and follow me, I will bring you home. I love you and you are mine.”
The history of the Church has been punctuated with spirited and sometimes grievous debates and disagreements about communion. As for his prison experience, Moore was unofficially granted special permission from the priest to receive the elements. In the contentious history of questions surrounding communion, there are three undeniable factors we can agree upon. First, “Jesus said to do this,” writes Moore. Second, “His grace is available to us in a special way when we do this.” And lastly, “all our human attempts at describing this holy mystery fall short. We are not worthy. But Christ still bids us all to come to the table of grace.”
Even the great novelist and lay theologian C.S. Lewis struggled to describe what actually takes place during the Lord’s Supper. “I find no difficulty in believing that the veil between the worlds … is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation,” he wrote. As the imaginative author of The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis poetically described it as the “big medicine” that was like a “hand from the hidden country” that touches not only our body, but also our soul.
Take, eat. Take, drink. It is the food for your soul.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.