Dear Family and Friends of the Diocese of Eau Claire,

I invite you to walk with me on an inward, spiritual journey through this Fourth Pastoral Letter regarding the Coronavirus. On March 30 I conferred with Diocese of Eau Claire’s Standing Committee, Executive Council, and Archdeacon regarding Holy Week and Easter services. As we approach Palm Sunday and Easter, what is most important and what is secondary? Discerning the difference is critical as health requirements will radically change this year’s Holy Week and Easter worship more than any other time in the history of Christianity in North America.
Let’s begin with Palm Sunday. I see four liturgical elements:
The Palm Sunday Gospel
The distribution of palms with procession
The Passion Narrative and sermon,
The celebration of the Holy Eucharist and receiving Holy Communion
What is core to Palm Sunday and what is secondary? With restrictions on attendance, where theologically can we retain the power of this day, and what can we give up in the name of public health and safety?
Holy Week and Easter Week are projected to be the most contagious time of all for the exponential expansion of the Coronavirus in our nation. Two elements in our Palm Sunday liturgy can spread the virus and actually endangers human life. One is spreading the disease through the distribution of palms. The other is in receiving Communion—the bread and the wine. In giving up these two items for public safety, can we see a new and perhaps better focus for Palm Sunday? I do.
The real power of Palm Sunday is in the contrast between the Palm Sunday Gospel and the Passion Narrative. This is rich Scripture for quality preaching, reflection, and discussion. Why do we move from the happy palm parade of Jesus on the donkey to cries of “Crucify him?” Why like Peter are we scared and want to run away? Is there an element of betrayal of faith in us as occurred in Judas? Why does God the Father who controls heaven and earth allow us who are made in his likeness and image to be so cruel? As we hear some people take the utilitarian approach to the Coronavirus (restart the economy and let the virus kill whom it will kill), we are reminded of the utilitarian words of the High Priest, Caiaphas, in John 18:14 when he said, “It is better that one man die than the entire nation.” The problem is obvious. In Christianity every life is precious. The one Caiaphas wants killed is the Son of God.
It is in pondering these questions that we experience the heart of Holy Week. As we are restricted in what we can do, let us focus on how we think. In the name of public safety we are deprived of the palms, and we can’t receive Communion, so let us focus on the Palm Sunday scriptures. A curious aspect of human nature is that often the very things that are intended as vehicles to improve our faith can become obstacles. It may be that in denying ourselves the palms we experience something more important—a deeper appreciation of the Passion Narrative.
It hurts not to receive Holy Communion on Palm Sunday or Easter. It helps to know that celebrating the Holy Eucharist and receiving Holy Communion are two actions. Being part of the celebration of the Eucharist is the key matter. Receiving Communion, eating the bread and drinking the wine, is secondary. There is such a thing as “Spiritual Communion.” Page 457 of the Prayer Book provides a rubric for a sick person. It says,
If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness or physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth.  The Book of Common Prayer did not anticipate the Coronavirus pandemic, but this rubric provides me with the rationale of Spiritual Communion for these times of restricted attendance.
With the Coronavirus’s deadly potential, I as your bishop direct each parish to exercise one of two choices for Palm Sunday.  1. Don’t use the palms at all. 2. Keep the palms in the plastic bag. Bless them on Palm Sunday or at a later time. The bags are not to be opened but left in refrigeration until we completely reopen our church buildings. Then distribute the Palms to everyone in celebration.  It is obvious that with the Coronavirus expanding exponentially in this week and into the near future.  We must restrict attendance as we did on March 22 and March 29.  Restricted attendance of two people in church buildings will continue through Holy Week, Easter Sunday, and until further notice.      In moving on to Easter, let us consider something simple but profound. While the Easter Vigil is ancient but relatively new to the Episcopal Church, the traditional Easter Sunday service has always been one of the easiest liturgies to understand. Why? In spite of the large crowds, special music, and beautiful flowers, the service’s liturgical pattern is the same as other Sundays. This is because the other Sundays are modeled on Easter Sunday and not the other way around! Therefore, our patterns of restricted attendance on March 22 and March 29 can be forerunners of how we need to observe Easter in the midst of pandemic.
It’s great that we have the technology to stream services, record services, and interact through Zoom and other devices. Even more, I am thankful for the small groups that are developing through Conference Calls. Your clergy and others have worked hard to reach out to their parish members through phone conversations. Also, many families have discovered our Jewish roots by using the Offices of the Prayer Book to worship in their homes.
In this time of restricted movement, the Offices of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Noon Day Prayer, Compline, and Devotions for Individuals and Families guide us to embrace one of the core values that we as Episcopalians hold dear. As proclaimed in our ordination services, we “believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation.”
It is in this spirit that beginning at 6 pm, on Sunday, April 19, and each following Sunday while we are in restricted attendance, I will be leading Evening Prayer through the Diocesan Zoom system and inviting discussion of one or several Sunday readings. No one is required to engage in this offering of Evening Prayer, but I do invite you to join me. My Canon to the Ordinary, Fr. Aaron Zook, will get you the Zoom meeting number each week through my Bishop’s Journal that always comes out on Friday or Saturday of each week.I plan to provide both a Palm Sunday and an Easter address via youtube.com for these two holy days. Also, Fr. Benjamin Thomas and Fr. Aaron Zook have prepared liturgies for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday for use in your home or in small conference call groups. They should be sent to you through your clergy by Thursday, April 2. With my love and best wishes in these difficult times, I remain,
Your brother in Christ,W. Jay Lambert

 

Dear Members and Friends of Grace Church,
 
I am very happy to tell you that Audio Architects have repaired the telephone listening service. Beginning this Sunday, March 22, you may access the system two ways.
 
You may call this number:  534-444-4880
         (Note that this is different from the number we  formerly used)
 
Or, you may stream from:  http://graceepiscopal.listentochurch.com
 
We will be restricting attendance at our services for the foreseeable future.  There will be two people in the church to conduct morning prayer, a leader and a congregant. The remaining members may listen via the phone service.
 
I hope to “see” you on the phone on Sunday.  As we continue our journey through this period  of concern, let’s think of ways to sustain our community through virtual modes.
 
May the Lord bless us all and keep us safe.
 
Paul