Children from many nations watched in anticipation as Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve and his Excellency Olexander Motsyk, ambassador of Ukraine, continued a Washington tradition Nov. 28 by opening the annual Festival of Lights at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors' Center. With the press of a button, they switched on 600,000 sparkling lights in trees and bushes that light the way to the center's concerts, performances and creche displays throughout December.
As they have for 35 years, hosts J.W. Marriott Jr. and his wife, Donna, joined with the Church Office of Public and International Affairs under the direction of Ann Santini to welcome diplomats, their staffs, members of Congress, government officials and area business and religious leaders for the lighting ceremony. The event has become an opportunity to build good will between Church members and representatives of nations as they focus on common ideals of peace and love.
Painted eggs and a multicolored star formed the backdrop for this year's event that highlighted the country of Ukraine, home to 11,000 Latter-day Saints. Ambassador Motsyk, a distinguished career diplomat whose particular interest is international law and international relations, reminded guests that the Kyiv Ukraine Temple dedicated in 2010 has a unique similarity to the Washington D.C. Temple: Both are built in a nation's capital near a beltway and both welcome a variety of international travelers. He added that the Kiev temple is the first built on the territory of the former Soviet Union.
"It serves members not only from Ukraine, but also from Armenia, Moldova, Romania and Russia," he said. "I view it as yet another evidence that Ukraine is a champion of religious freedom in its region."
The ambassador observed that Ukraine, "the breadbasket of Europe," celebrated the 21st anniversary of its independence this year. He said his country and the United States are strategic partners that cooperate on international security, economic development and humanitarian efforts based on common values. He also commented on the Church's efforts to promote friendly relations between the two nations.
After his remarks, the Mormon Choir of Washington D.C., under the direction of Gary Clawson, performed "Dobryj Vechir Tobi," a Ukrainian musical number.
"Seeing the smiles of Ambassador Motsyk, his wife, Natalia Terletska, and other Ukrainians during that song gave us all a sense of unity, peace and brotherhood," pointed out Lance T. Walker, director of the Church's Office of Public and International Affairs. "It's what the Festival is all about."
Continuing the theme of brotherhood and light, Brother Marriott noted that the lights at the visitors' center symbolize Christ, "the only source of true peace and serenity in this troubled world." He introduced Elder Nelson, a former thoracic surgeon whose pioneering research led to the development of a heart and lung machine that has saved many lives, including that of Brother Marriott's daughter.
Standing between the radiant statue of Christ and windows that overlook the illuminated temple, Elder Nelson presented a Christmas message that reinforced the metaphor of light with personal stories and scriptural references.
"Did you see the full moon tonight?" he remarked of the brilliantly clear evening. He reminded guests that despite their diverse differences, they all believed in truth, mutual respect and light.
He explained how his family's yearly Christmas pageant includes rotating roles for the children and grandchildren, and that a young granddaughter once said her role of holding a broomstick topped with a silver star — the Star of Bethlehem — was the most important role of all because she "helped the wise men find Jesus." The real star, he said, had been placed in orbit far in advance "in order that its light could coincide in time and in place with the Savior's birth."
Elder Nelson shared several scriptures about light, from Jesus' account of Himself as "the bright and morning Star," to the creation of the world when God said, "Let there be light: and there was light."
"It is interesting to note that at the arrival of Him who was called 'the Light of the World,' darkness was banished for days as a sign of His holy birth," Elder Nelson observed. Likewise, he said that in the Book of Mormon's account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, "the Western Hemisphere was without light — totally dark — 'for the space of three days.' "
He counseled that as people continue to receive divine light, they themselves become brighter, both physically and spiritually, even as they age.
Following a solo of "O Holy Night" by Kevin Riehle, Ambassador Motsyk joined Elder Nelson at the podium to light up the night sky. Afterwards, Elder Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, visited with 18 sister missionaries and three couples who serve at the visitors' center under the direction of Elder Don and Sister Lucille Olsen. For Sister Ling Wai Wong of Hong Kong and Sister Ksenia Lavreyntyeva of Siberia, it was quite a surprise when Elder Nelson began speaking to them in their native languages of Chinese and Russian.
The Festival of Lights is free and open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Visitors can attend nightly musical performances, view international creche displays and tour new interactive exhibits about the Church.