Photo by Jeffrey Borgholthaus, Deseret News archives
Thousands of visitors to the The Washington D.C. Temple grounds enjoy Christmas lights, musical performances and nativity scenes as part of the annual "Festival of Lights."

In 1994, Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was scheduled to preside over the Christmas lighting ceremony at the Washington D.C. Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Egypt’s ambassador to the United States would actually flip the switch, and many Muslim ambassadors and diplomats would be in attendance.

One day, Elder Maxwell asked me whether I could recommend a passage in the Quran that he might appropriately quote in his remarks. I instantly thought of the famous “light verse” (24:35): “Allahu nuur al-samawaat wa al-ard” (“God is the light of the heavens and the earth”).

We practiced it off and on before the event Nov. 30, 1994. He called me several times to ensure that his Arabic pronunciation was accurate.

Later, Elder Maxwell told me that his remarks had been well-received. His listeners were plainly surprised, even moved, that a Latter-day Saint apostle, opening a festival of Christmas lights, had quoted from the Quran in Arabic. The 300,000 light bulbs displayed around the temple were surely glorious, he told his audience, but they were merely a dim foreshadowing of the divine splendor.

Many religious traditions associate God with light. The foundational text of Jewish kabbalistic mysticism, for example, is the “Zohar,” meaning “splendor” or “radiance.” One of the great texts of the Islamic tradition, al-Ghazali’s early 12th-century “Niche of Lights” (published by BYU’s Islamic Translation Series in a dual-language edition) argues that God is more truly “light” than is physical light itself. Perhaps significantly, the first commandment reported in the Bible is the divine decree: “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3).

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,” says James 1:17, “and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

Jesus, testifies John 1:9, is “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” Doctrine and Covenants 88:6-13 describes Jesus as, “He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made. As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made; as also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they were made; and the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand.

"And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space — the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.”

The modern Restoration of the gospel began with “a pillar of light … above the brightness of the sun” and “two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description” (Joseph Smith-History 1:16-17). “We were overshadowed by a light,” said David Whitmer to Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith, recalling his experience as one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon in an 1878 interview. “It was not like the light of the sun nor like that of a fire, but more glorious and beautiful.”

They saw a “glorious messenger from heaven dressed in white,” Oliver Cowdery reportedly told a hostile courtroom during his time out of the church, “standing above the ground, in a glory, I have never seen anything to compare, with the sun insignificant in comparison.”

“The brightness and glory of the next apartment,” said Brigham Young, speaking of the spirit world, “is inexpressible” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 380). Thousands of near-death experiences describe “beings of light,” radiant with internal luminescence, and tunnels leading toward a light that is brilliantly bright but without glare, warm and suffused with love.

It’s entirely fitting that the 2016 Christmas initiative of the LDS Church is titled “Light the World.” It begins today.