SCRANTON – Rich in symbolism, the distribution of ashes brought many faithful together at parishes across the Diocese of Scranton on Ash Wednesday.

“After dealing with this pandemic almost a year now, it’s frankly wonderful to see so many of you gathered here today,” the Most Reverend Joseph C. Bambera, Bishop of Scranton, said during the 12:10 p.m. Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Peter.

With people wearing masks, sitting in alternating pews and spaced out to remain physically distant, the Cathedral reached its maximum capacity in accordance with established COVID-19 protocols.

“People have wondered, will people come back at the end of this pandemic? I think those people who have a depth of faith will not only come back but come back with a greater sense of resolve,” Bishop Bambera said to the media directly following Mass.

During his homily, the bishop preached on the words taken from the prophet Joel in the book of the Old Testament: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.”

“The message of Ash Wednesday calls us to change our lives…however, remember that Joel boldly challenges us to do so, not merely through gestures and religious practices – but by peering intensely into our hearts to ensure that our spirit – the core of our being – is honest and pure and open to the transforming power and presence of God,” Bishop Bambera said.

The bishop emphasized the importance of the Lenten journey, which draws people to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

“May we have the courage to confront the reality of our broken, struggling hearts and lives as we continue to face the pain and uncertainty born of the pandemic that has enveloped us. May we pray for the grace to turn away from all that distracts us from our resolve to authentically live our relationship with God. And may we selflessly serve the poor among us and so discover our merciful and loving God present in our lives,” the bishop added.

This year’s ash distribution was different because of the pandemic. Parishes in the Diocese of Scranton were given two options: to either sprinkle ashes on the top of the recipient’s head or use a cotton swab to trace a cross on the recipient’s forehead. The Cathedral used the cotton swab option, ordering extra-long cotton swabs in order to protect both the ministers and the public.

Ashes are an important symbol to Catholics for several reasons. First, they represent a physical sign that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. Second, they remind the faithful that God created us from the earth and when we die, we will return to it.

Just like the Cathedral of Saint Peter, Saint Paul of the Cross Parish in Scranton also saw a large number of faithful attend its noon Mass on Ash Wednesday.

“Just being able to come here today in a safe environment, and clean, it meant a lot to us,” Joshua Walker, parishioner at Saint Paul of the Cross Parish, said.

Walker’s brother echoed those sentiments.

“I think in times of anxiety, I think this is when we need God most for His strength and to allow everyone to feel a sense of comfort and unity,” Justin Walker added.

At Saint Paul of the Cross Parish, the pastor decided to sprinkle ashes on the top of each person’s head. The faithful say they are glad ashes were still available as they begin the 40 days of Lent.

“We have to think of the season, think of what God went through and He is going to help us through this situation, like all of the other situations we have to deal with,” parishioner James Kryzanowski said.