Dying and rising is at the center of Christianity. As Paul once reminded the Christian community in Rome, "If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him" (Romans 6:8).

Most religions contain parallel beliefs. For instance, though we can't precisely identify the one "whom they have pierced" in Sunday's first reading (Zech 12: 10-11, 13:1), that person's death eventually brings about a life-giving Jerusalem fountain "to purify from sin and uncleanness."

Yet, no faith relies more on dying and rising than Christianity.

The early Church quickly discovered no one had a problem with the rising aspect. Everyone wanted to experience a meaningful, fulfilled life, either here or in eternity, or in both. The difficulty revolved around dying.

Life and death

That's why Luke zeroes in on Jesus' statement, "The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised" (Lk 9: 18-24). Life comes only after suffering and death.

Lest anyone miss the point, Jesus presents it in another form: "Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses daily and follow me. For those who wish to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose themselves for my sake will save them."

Therefore, the first question Christian evangelists had to answer was, "How do people lose their lives for Jesus' sake?" Paul sets us on the right track in the second reading (Gal 3: 26-29).

He was deeply disturbed by his recently evangelized community's rejection of the "Gospel" of faith and freedom in which he had instructed them. They had pushed it aside in favor of the security that came from following the 613 laws of Moses.

Paul is forced to remind them of the essentials of Christian faith. One doesn't die with Jesus by rigorously adhering to a set of religious rules and regulations. One dies by becoming one with the risen Jesus and living out the implications of that decision. "All of you," the Apostle writes, "who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ."

Jesus didn't rise as He was before He died. As a "new creation," He no longer was just a free, Jewish male. That means those who "wear" Jesus must also cut through those limited distinctions and become the body of the risen Christ. "There is neither Jew or Greek," Paul writes, "there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus."

Long process

Several years ago, in a well-received lecture, Capuchin spiritual author Michael Crosby made an interesting observation. Interpreting Paul's well-known words from Galatians as a road map for the future instead of a reflection on the present, he mentioned that it took the Church 70 years to break down the walls between Jews and Gentiles, and 1,800 years to conclude some people weren't destined by God to be slaves and others free. After 2,000 years, we're still working on the male/female thing. In other words, becoming the risen Christ's body is a long, extremely difficult process of dying to ourselves in order to become one with others.

It's understandable why people break their concentration on becoming one, and fall back on keeping rules and regulations. As the Galatians discovered, such a ritualistic, impersonal way of living faith can be measured, achieved and rewarded. If our only goal in life is getting into heaven, what better security can we have?

On the other hand, dying with Jesus to make people one is never finished. We never reach a point where we can shout, "We've done it!"

If our dying and rising doesn't radically change us and our communities right here and now, it can't be the dying and rising of Jesus.