Nicholas just turned 6. I love this age; there are so many really wonderful questions and conversations. In Nicholas' case, he has to ponder something for a long time before he talks about it. And then he has to rehearse what he's going to say with himself. So, sometimes, at what might seem like an odd moment, he bursts out with a question:
"Mommy, I think it's possible you can sin so much you never go to heaven, right?"
Nicholas, I want you to think about heaven like a warm hug. God is waiting to scoop you up and give you the most wonderful, warm hug you've ever had. (Nicholas is a hugger — this is a good eternal reward.) When you sin, you turn yourself away from God, you move away from the warm hug.
Sometimes, you commit little sins and you just walk away. You can still feel God and He's still warm, but you're turned the other way and you're getting a little chilly. If you were to die, God would give you big hug and it might be a little uncomfortable at first but pretty soon you'd just be cozy.
If you commit great big sins and you're running away from God or so many little sins that you've walked a long, long way from Him, you will be very cold. Your soul will be so cold that it's colder than your hands if you play in the snow without mittens. And what happens when you come in from the snow when your hands are that cold and you run them under very warm water? It hurts, doesn't it? The water isn't bad or mean. It's the same warm water you love, but it hurts because your hands are too cold.
God's love, his hug, isn't bad or mean. It's the same warm, perfect hug of all, but someone who has sinned and never turned back toward God is so cold that the warm hug is very painful. He can never be happy in that hug. He can't hold his hands under the water and warm them up to be like God. Instead, he burns.
By now, I had the full attention of at least seven children. Stephen asked, "But what if you go to confession?"
On your way to confession, you have decided you are sorry; you turn toward God. Right away he begins to warm you, to get you ready for the hug. When you confess, your sins are forgiven and the hug feels perfect. And sometimes, walking back toward God seems like a long, long journey and you want someone to hold your hand along the way. That's what the Blessed Mother, your guardian angel and all the saints you love will do. You can ask them to hold your hand while you turn and walk (or run) back toward the warm hug.
So, as we look toward Lent, we need to see how far we are from the great, big hug. We need to turn ourselves toward our Father and remove those things that keep us from warming ourselves in his Love. When we fast, we do it to draw closer to God, to make ourselves aware that we need to be warmed by His love and that if we are not moving toward Him, we are growing colder.
Lenten fasting isn't about rules. It's about longing. It's about wanting that hug so much and being made aware of our need for it. Fast and abstinence won't look the same for everyone. There are no fasting police. Instead there are the fasting traditions of the ages from which we can learn: the roadmap for turning ourselves around to face God. And with that map, our hands firmly in the hands of the saints, we can walk to the glory of the great, warm hug. There is the great grace of the confessional, where we are the prodigal child who is scooped up in the joyful embrace of the father who was looking for him all along. There is grace and there is always the warmth of the Father.
So, no, Nicholas, you cannot sin so much that you never go to heaven — just as long as you turn and go back toward the hug.
"From the outermost border of heaven is His going forth, and His goal is the outermost part of heaven, and there shall no man hide himself from His heat" Psalm 18.