I certainly don’t practice the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday because I enjoy it. The whole thing is awkward, for everyone. Except for the bald guys and the women who’ve pulled their hair back, you’ve got to move the bangs out of the way. Some nervously stand too far away from me, leaving me to gesture, “Move closer,” or I have to close the gap. Other people come up with a big smile – we are socially conditioned that the correct response is to smile back, but I refuse. This is not the time. I am marking these people for death. I hate that, because I love them.

But the worst thing about Ash Wednesday is marking the children. The adults—at least the non-smilers—get what’s happening. It’s good for them. But these children—dear God, no! Smearing the ashes on a sweet little child makes you realize even more what a monster, what an enemy death is.

Yet the children, in all their simplicity, often understand more than the adults. The mother of a little girl told me that her daughter this morning (the day after Ash Wednesday) pointed to her forehead and said, “Look! My sins are gone!”

The liturgical practice of the church—and the opportunity it presents for parents to hand over the faith—has taught her far more than I could with a thousand sermons. Children’s sermons? That’s the sermon: ashes, cross, you, Jesus, death, life, sins, forgiven.

The news of this little girl saying, “Look! My sins are gone!” makes everything worth it.