With the press of a button, His Excellency Willy C. Gaa, ambassador to the U.S. from the Republic of the Philippines, and Elder Jay E. Jensen of the Seventy, recently illuminated half a million lights on the grounds of the Washington D.C. Temple and Visitors Center.
Elder J.W. Marriott Jr., an Area Seventy, hosted a special lighting event Dec. 2 and 3 for members of the Washington Diplomatic Corps that included ambassadors and LDS members of Congress. They gathered to officially open the Festival of Lights, an annual Christmas tradition in the nation's capital. Ambassador Gaa had the honor this year of helping to turn on the lights.
Throughout December, trees and bushes on the temple grounds are ablaze with colored lights welcoming the public to events at the Visitors Center. For Ambassador Gaa, introduced by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, as one of the most congenial and approachable diplomats in Washington, the lights are strikingly symbolic.
"Tonight, as we gather together, we demonstrate our collective pledge to be a light unto others," he said, "and together to be a beacon of hope for all."
As a counterpoint to the darkness of many world events, Ambassador Gaa said the lights represent "a symbolic glow that dispels darkness, gives warmth and brings hope."
His country, he said, is working to bring hope by helping to create a better and more just world. Although the Philippines is comprised of 7,104 islands and 90 million people with myriad cultural backgrounds, faiths and languages, he said it is still one nation. He added that it maintains close ties with the U.S. because the two countries share common goals, plus it enjoys a special friendship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Noting that 600,000 Church members live in the Philippines, the ambassador said the Church has joined the Filipinos "literally and in spirit" in the development of their country.
Ambassador Gaa also praised the Church's "all-encompassing" care, which includes the efforts of missionaries, those who work on development projects and those who provide humanitarian assistance after disasters. The flooding caused by typhoons Ketsana and Parma created a particular need this year.
"The response from the Church was immediate and comprehensive," the ambassador said. "Up to now, you remain steadfast partners in piecing together broken lives and rebuilding affected communities."
After a Filipino children's choir joined the Mormon Choir of Washington in singing "Silent Night," Elder Jensen shared his testimony.
"His light and life is central to our being and existence," he said, adding that Christmas should be a family time of love-filled traditions that focus on Christ. Drawing parallels to the Christmas story, Elder Jensen encouraged people to make room for the Savior in their lives, to believe the message of the angels that He truly is their Savior, and to "make known abroad" that message to others.
Last year, the Festival of Lights attracted more than 250,000 people who came to enjoy the nightly events.