Dying is at the heart of our faith. Jesus teaches that the person who dies correctly lives correctly. Yet I've found that those believers whose faith isn't rooted in Scripture often aren't familiar with the kind of death which actually brings life.

Years ago, as chair of a high school religion department, I was addressing a group of parents, encouraging them to send their grade school children to our institution. One of my selling points was that most of our students seemed to enjoy participating in the school liturgies. I reminded the audience that, though only a few of our monthly Eucharists were obligatory, more than 95 percent of the kids regularly took part in the celebrations.

It was then that one of the parents stood up and angrily remarked, "That's the trouble with religion today: people are supposed to enjoy it! I've hated going to Mass all my life, and I certainly don't want my kids to start liking it now!"

How to suffer

Obviously, the man had learned someplace that suffering and dying got you into heaven. He was just a little confused about what such meritorious suffering and dying involved.

As we hear in Sunday's first reading (Zech 12:10-11), even the authors and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures knew that somehow pain was hooked up to salvation. Scholars have no idea to whom Zechariah is referring when he speaks about "him whom they have thrust through." But this recently-returned-from-Exile prophet knows that the mourning for this individual gives Yahweh an opportunity to "pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and petition."

It shouldn't have come as a shock to Jesus' disciples that, immediately after Peter's profession of faith in Him as the "Messiah of God" (Lk 9:18-24), Jesus not only forbids them to tell anyone about that dimension of His personality, but also informs them: "The Son of Man must first endure many sufferings; be rejected by the elders, the high priests and the scribes; and be put to death, and then be raised up again."

The difficulty comes when Jesus demands that His followers join Him in His suffering, death and resurrection: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it."

At this point in His Gospel, Luke doesn't go into detail about the pain and death required of us. In Sunday's liturgical readings, Paul is the author who deals with particulars (Gal 3:26-29).

All one

"In Christ Jesus," the Apostle reminds his Galatian community, "you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed ourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

Since it is the risen Jesus we follow, it is the risen Jesus with whom we become one through Baptism. If we identified with the historical Jesus, only male Jews under the age of 30 could be Christians. But Jesus rose as a new creation, neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. The risen Jesus simply is the risen Jesus -- totally unique, calling us to imitate His uniqueness totally.

That's how we die; not by enduring badly celebrated Eucharists, or by multiplying external penances, but by attempting daily to eradicate the human distinctions which keep us from becoming one with all around us.

At the recent Call to Action meeting in Detroit, Father Michael Crosby insightfully reflected on Paul's brief lines. "It took the Church only two generations to bring about equality between Jew and Greek," The Capuchin writer said. "It took almost 18 centuries for that same church to bridge the gap between slave and free. But as we prepare to enter the 21st century of Christianity, we're still trying to overcome the divisions between male and female."

Only those willing to die to themselves deeply enough to become one with all will experience the life which Jesus offers to all.

(06-18-98)