Explainer: sprinkling of Ashes

This year we are returning to the older tradition of sprinkling ashes on the top of the head for Ash Wednesday. We are adopting this practice to reduce any potential spread of germs through contact. However, it is neither new nor outside of the norms long held within the Church.

The sprinkling of ashes on the crown of the head is an ancient method of signifying penance and conversion, dating back to the first centuries of the Church. Pope Urban II officially established the practice of distributing ashes to the faithful on the first day of Lent, now called Ash Wednesday. This practice has remained the norm throughout most of the Catholic world, the exceptions being the US and Africa where ashes are usually placed on the forehead in the shape of a cross.

This change to the older practice offers us the opportunity to reflect upon why the ashes are sprinkled on the crown of our heads, once washed and anointed at our baptism, as a sign of our desire to turn away from sin and return to grace. Let us embrace it as we prepare to pray, fast, and give alms this Lent!