On Ash Wednesday, some ‘trace’ and some ‘sprinkle’ — But why?

An Ash Wednesday mystery

In Germany, on Ash Wednesday, a priest traces a cross of ash on the forehead of each penitent Catholic. In neighboring Poland, a priest sprinkles ashes atop the head.

Most Latin American countries trace. But they sprinkle at the Vatican, and in Italy. Croatia sprinkles. Nigeria traces.

The U.S. is a tracing country. 

In the U.K, surprisingly, they do both. 

And no one seems to know why.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent everywhere. And everywhere, Lent begins when Catholics are marked with ash, and urged to turn from sin, repent, and follow Christ.

Ashes are not sacraments, but they are sacramentals— signs of the sacred. Being marked with ash is meant as a blessed reminder of our mortality, our judgment, and our need for conversion.

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But how the marking actually happens is a matter of considerable variety. 

Even in countries that customarily trace a cross upon the forehead, some priests trace a distinct and clearly delineated cross, while others make a simple smudge with their thumbs. In Ireland, priests sometimes use a cork carved with a cross design, using it like a stamp on the foreheads of Catholics.

Countries that “sprinkle” have some variety too — in some countries, the priest puts his ash-covered thumb on the crown of the head. In others, he drops the ash from a few inches away.

The Church’s ritual texts are not especially specific about how ashes are to be distributed. The Roman Missal says that the priest “places ashes” on those who come forward for them. The English translation specifies the ashes should be placed “on the head.”

Dr. Lynne Boughton, a specialist in the history of liturgy at the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary, told The Pillar that the Church is often very specific when giving direction for sacraments, but is usually less specific about sacramentals like ashes.

“In the sacrament of baptism, for example, a priest-presbyter who confers the Sacrament is to anoint the caput of the recipient — top or crown of the head — but not the frons — forehead — which is reserved to anointing...in the sacrament of confirmation.”

“Traditionally, the Roman Rite has been much more flexible with sacramentals than sacraments,” Boughton explained.

“Being a sacramental, not a sacrament, the additional point of distribution for ashes is not closely regulated by liturgical law,” she added.

Breaking from that ordinary flexibility, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments has made specific recommendations for distributing ashes in 2021, because of the pandemic

Ashes should be distributed by a priest, who should exhort the entire congregation once to repentance, and then, wearing a mask, sprinkle ashes atop the head of each Catholic, without saying anything more, the Vatican has urged. 

Most U.S. dioceses are planning to follow the Vatican’s recommendation. But some dioceses will do otherwise: Some dioceses in the U.S., Canada and the Philippines have prepared kits so families can distribute ashes at home, at least one diocese in the U.S. has instructed priests to impose ashes on the forehead, using a q-tip, and others will offer ashes in the ordinary mode of tracing.

However it happens, the custom of being marked with ash at the beginning of Lent dates back to the early Church. But wearing ashes as a sign of penitence goes back even before that: Old Testament prophets spoke of fasting in sackcloth and ashes in supplication to God. And in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus noted the custom of repenting in “sackcloth and ashes.”

In the early centuries of Christianity, penitents were sprinkled with ash by their bishops, to help them prepare for Easter. The custom, which was especially common in Rome, spread throughout the Church. By the 11th century, the term “Ash Wednesday” had emerged to describe the beginning of the Lenten season. 

Along the way, distinct customs for distributing ashes emerged among local Churches.

But how, why, and when did those customs emerge?

To find out, The Pillar contacted seven experts in liturgical and sacramental theology and history. We asked those experts why some countries sprinkle, and some countries trace.

Not one in seven knew. 

Some researched the matter extensively for The Pillar, and still came up empty. Experts told The Pillar, “I wish I could be more help here,” and “I’m not sure where to look this up.”

Several asked us to let them know what we discovered.

But on this topic, The Pillar hasn’t discovered much.

One liturgical theologian speculated that because some countries evangelized by Irish missionaries trace ashes on the forehead, tracing might have begun on the Emerald Isle. 

Ireland does indeed trace. Australia and Nigeria were both evangelized in part by Irish priests, and both trace. Germany traces, and some of the very earliest missionaries to Germany were Irish. But Nigeria was also evangelized by Italian missionary congregations, and Italy sprinkles. So why does Nigeria trace and not sprinkle? No one is sure.

Furthermore, Spain traces, and that can’t be easily attributed to the Irish. And even if it could, no one can say that tracing actually started with the Irish. They might have picked it up from someone else.

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Another theologian told the The Pillar that one point in the Church’s history, laity were marked with ash on the forehead and clerics were marked with ash on the crown of their head — the place where they had been tonsured. But sources are scant on when this was, and how exactly, if true, the practices split and developed.

Dr. Boughton’s expert opinion is direct: The history of sprinkling and tracing is a mystery. No one knows. No one is likely to find out.

“The reason for using the frons (forehead) rather than the caput (crown of head) is anyone's guess: women might be wearing hats, ashes in the hair of a man or woman are messy and likely to fall to the ground, it is difficult to get ashes to the caput of a tall person, use of the forehead allows the recipient and others to see the ashes during the rest of the day,” Dr. Boughton told The Pillar. 

“My suspicion is that no one really knows why parishes in some places have used the forehead,” while others have used the head, she added.

Dr. Boughton might be right. This Ash Wednesday mystery might never be solved. At The Pillar, though, we’d still like to get to the bottom of it. We hope you’ll ask around. 

But if you aim to help us solve this liturgical mystery, we urge you to remember a word of wisdom from Dr. Boughton:

“Liturgists often make up false traditions to justify what are merely matters of convenience or prudence,” she told The Pillar.

Caveat emptor.

And, much more important: Repent, and believe in the Gospel.