Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles joined His Excellency Kenichiro Sasae, ambassador of Japan, to officially open the Festival of Lights at the Washington D.C. Temple and Visitors’ Center on Nov. 29. Together they switched on more than 650,000 lights around the temple grounds and encouraged dignitaries from the diplomatic corps, government, business and diverse religious faiths to reflect that glow by becoming personal beacons of light and hope.
A popular Christmas tradition in the nation’s capital, the festival draws more than 90,000 visitors to nightly musical performances and displays including 85 international Nativity scenes, trees decorated with dolls from around the world and a life-sized Nativity outdoors.
Brother J.W. Marriott Jr. and Sister Donna Marriott hosted the two-night opening event, as they have for the past 39 years. Director of International Affairs Mauri Earl welcomed guests. With the backdrop of the lighted temple through the windows, the Mormon Choir of Washington, D.C., soloist Sandra Turley, and children of the guests sang Christmas carols.
In his remarks during the lighting ceremony, Elder Stevenson focused on the joy and purpose of becoming a light to others through example and service. “My best memories are not what I received, but what I gave,” Elder Stevenson said.
As a youth, he helped prepare Christmas baskets for widows in his neighborhood, some of them first and second-generation immigrants.
Today, a Stevenson family tradition is to provide Christmas to a needy family. Elder Stevenson said the effort to find the right gifts for the children in the chosen family etched the “true spirit of Christmas” on the hearts of his own four sons. This changing and strengthening of the heart is a principle he firmly believes in.
He experienced it spiritually in his own life as a young missionary to Japan, as president of the Japan Nagoya Mission (2004-2007), and as counselor and president in the Asia North Area. As the president of an exercise equipment manufacturing company, Elder Stevenson said he learned about it physically as he helped create devices to measure the effect of such equipment on the heart. He began to consider how the two were related.
“Imagine for a moment a way to measure the condition of your heart in a spiritual context, as described in the scriptures. How healthy is your spiritual heart?” He counseled that kind deeds and good works — putting witness into action —show that Christ’s love is truly written on a person’s heart. The Lord warned of those who honor Him with their lips but whose hearts “are far from me” (Matthew 15:8).
“More important than the Christmas greetings that fall from our lips is the spirit that abides in our hearts,” Elder Stevensen said.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced honored guest Ambassador Sasae, who likewise discussed ways that people can become lights for each other. The ambassador explained that although the LDS Church established a mission in Japan in 1901, all missionaries were withdrawn between 1924 and 1945. It was a time that prompted one Japanese woman to remark “all had become darkness.”
He also recounted the surprise meeting of an American Mormon soldier and a Japanese Mormon woman during the Occupation of Japan. “I think each must have felt the light of their faith go on inside them,” he said. Those Mormon missionaries who helped his country after the East Asia earthquake and tsunami of 2011 he called “lights in the darkness.”
“Tonight we are lighting 650,000 lights. In comparison, the number of Latter-day Saints around the world is over 15 million. And each, I believe, is a light — a light of godliness, of service, of family and community.”
Elder John E. Fowler, director of the visitors’ center, noted that the festival itself is a spiritual and physical light for the Washington, D.C. area. “It’s a gift to the community, a chance to learn more about Jesus Christ, and a reason to celebrate the eternal values that bind us together,” he said.
Elder Fowler created an opportunity for members in all 19 stakes in the Washington D.C. Temple district to become hosts for the event, thereby freeing the 24 sister missionaries and three couple missionaries to focus on teaching. In addition, this year he and Washington D.C. Temple President Kent W. Colton visited neighbors who live near the temple to bring poinsettias and invite them to the festival.
All Festival of Lights activities are free to the public. The visitors’ center is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every night through Jan. 1, 2017.
The LDS Church News is an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The publication's content supports the doctrines, principles and practices of the Church.