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A simple question stops Kathryn Pasker Ineck in her tracks as she realizes that preschoolers have a better grasp of theology than most adults.

“Father Steve?” I stopped our parish priest in the church hallway one evening. “I’m worried about our three-year-old.”

Fr Steve looked mildly amused. “What can Duke* have possibly done?”

“He’s been dressing as a Roman soldier and pretending to nail Jesus to the cross. Like, all the time.”

Fr Steve’s face went blank, “Well, it’s not like it’s a salvation issue,” he responded with his characteristic dry sense of humor. I immediately laughed, but then wondered if he was actually not kidding. Seriously, why in the world would a preschooler be so obsessed with the Crucifixion in such an odd way?


little boy in knight costume with sword, helmet, and shield


At Ash Wednesday Mass, I had told the kids that we were going to go to the altar to get crosses on our foreheads. We returned to our pew and Duke looked at me, his green eyes wide and sincere: “That didn’t even hurt!” He whispered loudly. Mortified, I pressed a kiss into the top of his head as I realized that he thought that we were walking to the altar to have little crosses nailed to our foreheads. A few weeks later, he sat in a pew on his Papa Jim’s lap, watching with rapt attention, during the live Stations of the Cross that our parish 8th graders perform every year. By night, he slept with his little hands clutching the large lift-a-flap Bible board book that his Grandma Barbara and Grandpa Ray gave him and he would wake immediately looking for it if we prized it out of his sleepy grip. Every single night. By day, he asked to watch his animated Miracles of Jesus and Passion of Jesus DVDs with his older brother, Digit*.

Frequently, he crucified a Curious George stuffie with his beloved toy hammer. Again.

At my parents’ house one day, Duke asked my mom to lie on the floor on her back. Intent on his job and wearing a Narnia knight costume and plastic silver helmet over his wild chestnut curls, he stretched her arms out and “nailed” her to the cross.


toy hammer and nail


Later, Digit scattered Legos all over the carpet. “Why are there Legos everywhere?” my mom asked. “It’s 30 pieces of silver, Marmee,” Digit answered as if it were obvious. Apparently, he had been in the vicinity of Judas.

My husband and I were becoming increasingly worried. And our parents were increasingly amused. It finally occurred to me to sit down with Duke and ask him why he was nailing Jesus to the cross. After I put the baby to bed, I snuggled with both boys on the couch to have a little heart-to-heart. “Mommy,” Duke enunciated slowly, and with exaggerated patience to be sure I understood him, “Jesus can’t rise from the dead until He dies first.” Digit nodded solemnly in agreement.

Time stood still.

Click to tweet:
Jesus was clearly on to something when He exhorted us to be like the little children. #catholicmom

I had been worrying over the actions of my little boys, but all the while they were processing the truths of the Gospel in their own ways. Jesus’s death is a terrible thing for anyone to ponder, but my little preschoolers saw past the bald facts and processed the theology behind it, something difficult for most adults, because, as adults, we tend to get in our own way. We get bogged down by all the little details—details that we have heard over and over again each year during Lent—so much that we don’t really see the Passion for what it is, since the stories are so familiar and so automatic. “Because by Your sorrowful Passion, You have set us free” begins to sound like a one-word susurrus as we mumble our way through it on a Friday-night Stations of the Cross service rather than the powerful praise that it actually is meant to be.

Jesus was clearly on to something when He exhorted us to be like the little children: as we progress though Lent this year, ever nearer to Holy Week, let us take some time each day to look at the Stations of the Cross a little closer, listen to the Gospels a little more carefully, and unite ourselves a little more firmly to the love that Jesus has for each one of us. Saint Augustine reminds us, “God loves us as if there were only one of us.” May we each feel that love with a certitude that surpasses all understanding. But it’s okay if you don’t feel compelled to nail your stuffies (or grandmothers) to the cross. You can leave that job for a 3-year-old.

*I have used nicknames for my sons to protect their privacy. There’s nothing worse than being a teen and having your mother embarrass you at every turn!

Copyright 2022 Kathryn Pasker Ineck
Images: Canva Pro