Temple grounds are aglow for Yule

Russian Federation ambassador to the United States, Yuli M. Vorontsov, joined with Elder Donald L. Staheli of the Seventy in illuminating 300,000 dazzling lights on the grounds of the Washington Temple on Dec. 2.

As the Mormon Choir of Washington sang the last verse of Silent Night in Russian, Ambassador and Mrs. Vorontsov were visibly touched. "His smile lit up the room, and he sang along," said Ann Santini, director of the Church's Office of International Affairs, which organized the event.Two consecutive nights of lighting ceremonies officially begin the monthlong Festival of Lights, now in its 20th year. The festival attracts 250,000 visitors each year.

Prior to closing the switch to turn on the lights on the first night, Elder Staheli, second counselor in the North America Northeast Area presidency, and Ambassador Vorontsov spoke of the meaning of Christmas, drawing heavily on the analogy of light. They also expressed gratitude for the existing friendship between the United States and Russia and for peace felt throughout the world amid the averted Gulf Crisis.

Bringing the greetings of President Gordon B. Hinckley to ambassadors, embassy staff and their families in attendance, Elder Staheli spoke of his gratitude for the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. He then stated, "His message seems particularly important to many of the nations who are troubled with conflict, who are troubled with hunger and who are poor in spirit with little hope for life in the years ahead."

Wishing good will for the diplomats and the countries they represent, Elder Staheli continued, "Tonight we will illuminate these lights not only in celebration of His birth, but also with a prayer that the lights would shine this evening in each of your countries around the world as a symbol of peace to men and women everywhere."

In his turn at the podium, Ambassador Vorontsov, who is also adviser for foreign affairs to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, focused his remarks on the different types of light found in an often dark world. He spoke of the lights of knowledge, progress, peace, a child's smile, kindness, friendship, hope and faith.

He said: "Every human being should have the guiding light of faith. This is one of the brightest lights. The life of a human being is a bright light. Every human being is absolutely unique and gives unique light to others whom he loves, whom he respects - the wonderful light of life."

Focusing on the evening's theme of gratitude and friendship, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada said in his introduction of Ambassador Vorontsov, "Our thankfulness is extended to your people and to your government for the fair and courteous treatment of the Church and members of the Church within the boundaries of your vast nation."

During the two nights of lighting ceremonies, diplomats from 70 nations came to mingle with Church leaders, bear Christmas messages, and listen to music of the season. Ambassadors from 21 nations were represented on the first night with key diplomats attending from these and an additional eight nations. On the second night of the ceremonies, embassy staff from 41 more countries listened as U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon gave an insightful Christmas message, and once again turned on lights to the delight of the guests.

Other guests included business, religious and government leaders, including members of the Church serving in Congress - Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, and California Congressmen Ron Packard, John Doolittle and Wally Herger.

Despite the "political climate" in Washington and amid such a breadth of countries with differing cultures and ideas, diplomats attending the Festival of Lights related to each other on a more spiritual level. Some even found similarities between their native customs and American traditions.

After heralding the event as a glorious occasion, Ambassador Warnasena Rasaputram, newly arrived from Sri Lanka, said: "In my country we light many lamps in temples as an offering to dispel darkness in ourselves and in the world."

Said Irena Kozminska, whose husband is the ambassador from Poland: "The Festival of Lights is a very special event. With its spirit of love, gratitude and togetherness, with wonderful music and true joy on every face, it brings us a feeling of being part of a big, happy family. For me, it is a beautiful opening of the Christmas season."

Music for the ceremonies was provided by the Mormon Choir of Washington, with Ariel Bybee of the Metropolitan Opera as a guest vocal soloist, and Joyce Bennett, wife of Sen. Bennett, as a guest flute soloist.

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