As a child, I never really understood why a priest would rub black dirt on our heads. (The dirt is actually the ashes of the palm fronds given out on Palm Sunday of the previous year. My mother would hang onto those fronds, tucking them in the corner of a picture frame in the dining room and then dutifully returning them to church so that some behind-the-scenes person could set them on fire somewhere.)
The unchurched kids in our neighborhood used to tease us about our blackened foreheads, but God help us if we rubbed them off before bath time. My mother thought it was sinful to wash them off. I used to think that was ridiculous, but in hindsight, and with a lot more Sundays under my belt, I guess she must have equated washing them off to Peter’s denial of Jesus. Still, children can be quite ruthless, so I used to pray for a priest with small thumbs. It seemed, however, that we always found ourselves in the line of a priest with freakishly large thumbs and terrible aim who made no effort to make the sign of the cross and every effort to cover as much surface area as possible. Imposition of ashes indeed!