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Baptism at Easter Vigil Makes Holiday Especially Uplifting

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

As millions of Christians celebrate their faith today in Jesus’ death and resurrection 2,000 years ago, for some spiritual seekers Easter becomes the occasion for an intensely personal experience of transformation and rebirth.

“I’m dying this Saturday,” 18-year-old Jonathon Hicks said before his baptism this weekend at St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica. “In every theological sense, we’re going to die and be reborn as a new person walking out of the baptismal waters.”

Kelly Swanson, 34 and the mother of two young children, called her baptism at St. Monica’s “just the beginning of a lifelong journey for me.”

“I think that people are beginning to either return to faith or to find faith for the first time,” said Sister Catherine Ryan, who supervised St. Monica’s class of converts. “They find that there’s something missing in their lives.”

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Like Hicks and Swanson, hundreds of others were baptized throughout Southern California on Saturday night at Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches.

Although far less familiar to Protestants and non-Christians than sunrise services, the Great Vigil of Easter dates to the 4th century church in Jerusalem. Clergy and participants say it is one of the most moving liturgical observances. It is a time of admitting new converts to the faith through baptism as well as an occasion for believers to renew their baptismal vows.

At All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, 11 converts were to have been baptized Saturday night, along with 17 infants in a separate service.

At St. Monica’s, Hicks and Swanson were part of a class of 21 adults to be baptized; 51 non-Catholic Christians also were to be received into the Catholic Church.

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At Trinity Lutheran Church in Pasadena, half a dozen candidates were to be baptized.

The symbolic death in the waters of baptism and rebirth as one emerges are steeped in tradition as old as Christianity itself.

They form a theme that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, addressed in his Easter message.

“As we rejoice in this great victory of Jesus, we ourselves must be certain that we are not looking for the living one among the dead: that graveyard where our sins can be found, where our diminished respect for other people resides and where our pride and pettiness find a home,” Mahony said. “It is so easy for us to meander around the tombs of our past lives and to keep company with tombstones that never allow us to be free in our risen savior.”

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Converts at St. Monica’s said the venerable Easter vigil rites are as new and meaningful to their lives as the dawning of Easter morning.

“This Easter is going to be special like no other Easter before it,” said Deputy Los Angeles City Atty. Gary Geuss, who was baptized Saturday night. “It’s going to be one of the most important days of my life.”

His two daughters, ages 8 and 10, will also be confirmed, meaning that the whole family--he, his children and his wife, Sara, who is already baptized--will receive Communion together for the first time.

Hicks, a senior at St. Monica High School with a wooden cross around his neck, still marvels at what he calls the transformation in his life after a three-month depression that began in January 1996.

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“I remember lying in my bed one night. Really, there is no way to explain this. I was touched by God. I don’t know if I was able to say that God himself came down or anything, but I was definitely revealed ‘the Word’ in a very intense, profound way,” Hicks said.

“I don’t know,” he said, brushing his wavy dark brown hair with his hand. “I mean, this is when I’m giving my soul to God. It’s something beyond anything I’ve ever done. I’m going to experience something that I’ve never really felt before--that full acceptance of so many people, that love of so many people, and being accepted into God’s heart in such a pure way.”

Dena Reinesto, a 23-year-old tax accountant, said her spiritual searching brought her to St. Monica’s as well.

“I have a wonderful family. I never felt unloved or unwelcome,” she said. “But this is a different love, a love from within and unconditional. My mom loves me unconditionally and my dad as well. But this is a force. This is something greater, from beyond, something to look forward to.”

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Like Hicks, Reinesto said she faced a crisis in her life, the breakup of a yearlong relationship with a boyfriend. Angry and hurt, she wanted to get even, she said--and thus began scanning the Bible for zingers she could heap on him. She said that she considered a passage from Proverbs 12:22 (“Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord”) but that the Scripture instead began to heal her in unexpected ways.

“Every night I’d come home from work and read. . . . I felt this peace coming over me,” she said. “I would fall asleep with the Bible on my heart. I’d wake up a little while later and I put it away and I’d go back to sleep. I went from probably one of the worst days . . . to one of the best feelings within a week. . . . I was able to forgive in a short period of time.”

Like many new parents, Swanson wanted to go to services for her children. But, at 34, she wasn’t sure how church would fit into her busy schedule and, when Sunday mornings rolled around, it was hard getting out of bed.

But two months after the birth of her second child, who is now a year old, she began reading the Catholic missal, which contains all the prayers and responses necessary for celebrating the Mass throughout the year. Before long, she had read three-fourths of it.

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“Everything just started to take a meaning for me,” Swanson said. “I was coming to church [and] just really listening to what the pastor was saying and really listening to the homily and really putting my life to the test. I don’t know. I started just going through this slow transformation.”

At dinnertime, she said, her 4 1/2-year-old son, Robby, would ask her and her husband to hold hands during the prayer. “He started doing it, and now he wants to be read a story in the Bible every night. It’s a whole transformation that’s just taken place,” she said.

Still, although she and her son would walk up to the priest for a blessing during Communion at church, they did not receive the sacrament because neither had been baptized.

“He was watching everybody else take the sacrament, and he said, ‘Mommy, I want some. Why don’t I get some?’ He asked a few times and I hushed him,” she said. “Then I started to think about what he said and I realized, ‘That’s me! I want it!’ And that’s why I’m doing it.”

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For Geuss, Hicks, Reinesto and Swanson, the celebration of their first Easter as baptized Christians is just a beginning. None believe the road ahead will be easy.

“My life will be different from here on out,” Swanson said. “I mean, I have a responsibility not only to me and my family but also to the community and to the people I interact with on a daily basis. . . . Baptism is just the next big step to that new life working with God and volunteering with the community and helping to spread the word.”

Geuss, the deputy city attorney--who often defends the Los Angeles Police Department in civil lawsuits--said he had, of course, already been an honest lawyer. But “many people have a hard time being ethical and upstanding when they’re believing that what they have to do is represent a client and that they need to be deceitful or lie,” he said.

“This [baptism] process has really, I believe, cemented in my mind the right way to go about my life in my profession--to always be as honest and straightforward as I can. If there are only a few, maybe there will be more someday.”

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