With lighted Christmas trees, festive garlands and elegant boughs, the Tabernacle on Temple Square provided a sparkling setting for inspiring, heartwarming messages delivered at the First Presidency Christmas Devotional Dec. 3.
President Gordon B. Hinckley and his counselors, President Thomas S. Monson, first counselor, and President James E. Faust, second counselor, spoke movingly and powerfully of the focus of the season, Jesus Christ.Members of the Quorum of the Twelve, the Seventy and the Presiding Bishopric, as well as general auxiliary leaders, also attended the devotional, which was conducted by President Faust.
The Tabernacle Choir, directed by Jerold Ottley and Donald Ripplinger, and accompanied by John Longhurst and Clay Christiansen, had a major role in setting the mood for the devotional. The choir sang a jubilant rendition of "Angels We Have Heard on High" as part of the program's prelude. Other special selections performed by the choir were "O Come, O Come, Emmanauel" and "To Him We Sing." The congregation, numbering about 5,000 in the Tabernacle and tens of thousands more watching a satellite broadcast in some 3,000 meetinghouses in North America and the Caribbean joined in singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" at the beginning of the program. Before the program concluded, the congregation joined the choir in singing several Christmas carols.
In his first Christmas message since becoming president of the Church, President Hinckley spoke of the Redeemer of Mankind, whose birth is celebrated at the Christmas season. "He is the Firstborn of the Almighty Father," President Hinckley said. "He dwelt in the royal courts on high, and, as part of an eternal plan, condescended to leave His royal estate and come to earth, to be born in a manger because there was no room in the inn. His birthright was that of a royal prince, but He was born into the household of Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth."
President Hinckley said he sometimes reflects on the question posed by the angel in the vision given Nephi: "Knowest thou the condescension of God?" (1 Ne. 11:16.) President Hinckley spoke of the word "condescend," saying it means to drop down to a less-dignified level and to cast aside the privileges of rank. He said the Savior willingly and knowingly set aside every privilege pertaining to His divine Sonship and came to earth under the most humble of circumstances. "He was born among a conquered people, in a vassal state, into a society where there was much of conflict and bitterness and hate," President Hinckley said.
"How grateful I am, how grateful all of us must be, that He condescended to come to earth and give His life on Calvary's cross for each of us. There is nothing any of us can do to recompense Him fully for what He has done for us, but we can make an earnest effort in this direction by following His divine commandments.
"The story of Christmas is so much larger than the story of His birth in Bethlehem. It is the very core of the entire plan drawn and adopted for the salvation of the sons and daughters of God of all generations. His birth cannot be separated from His earthly ministry. Neither can it be detached from His divine sacrifice, the atonement made in behalf of each of us. At Christmas, we sing of His birth. I feel so profoundly grateful for that birth. But that birth would not be remembered but for the gift He made to all of us through His mortal ministry, followed by the terrible pain and suffering of His death, to rise glorious and triumphant as the Redeemer of the world.
"Christmas becomes a solemn reminder of all this, and it has a wondrous effect upon our lives. Somehow in the magic of this season, there is less of hate and more of love, there is less of greed and more of giving, there is less of indifference and more of gratitude. If only for a brief season, we are inclined to lay aside our selfishness and reach out to help others. We see this all around us in the generous outpouring of kindness in behalf of those in need and pain and distress. We are more inclined to step beyond the narrow confines of our self-centered routines and reach out to help others less fortunate."
President Hinckley related as an example the experience of W. Lamar Palmer, a member of the Church in Brandon, Manitoba. Brother Palmer was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police when, on Christmas Eve of 1955, he and a fellow officer made a difficult trek through snow to deliver a Christmas meal and gifts to a mother and four children who lived on a little-used bush road about four miles from the nearest town. The officers drove three miles, until they came to the bush road that had not been plowed. After an exhausting struggle, they made their way to the family's small cabin. With tears in her eyes, the mother told the officers they were the answer to prayer. Without them, the family would have had no Christmas gifts or meal. Grateful and delighted children smothered the officers with hugs "and a thousand `thank you's.' Everyone shed tears . . . including two big policemen." (Ensign, December 1982.)
President Hinckley said Brother Palmer's story could be repeated in a variety of circumstances a thousand times during the Christmas season when hearts reach out to others.
"And so, how thankful I feel for Christmas," he said. "This is not the actual time of the Savior's birth. We know that. But it is a time when we celebrate it with all of the Christian world. We have disgracefully over-commercialized it. But even with all of that, there still enters in our lives a sweet and wonderful feeling at this glad season."
President Hinckley noted that this was his first Christmas devotional since last April "when you sustained me in these present responsibilities which I carry with feelings of inadequacy and humility." He expressed love to the members, and appreciation for their confidence and prayers, without which, he said, he would be weak.
"I know that I am not the head of this Church," he said. "The Lord Jesus Christ is its head. He is its living head. My mission, my chief responsibility, my greatest honor comes in bearing solemn testimony of His living reality. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who condescended to come into this world of misery, struggle and pain, to touch men's hearts for good, to teach the way of eternal life, and to give of Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. He is `King of kings, and Lord of lords, and He shall reign forever and ever.' How different, how empty our lives would be without Him. How much truer, how much deeper is our love and appreciation and respect one for another because of Him. How infinite is our opportunity for exaltation made possible through His redeeming love. I bear solemn witness that He lives and stands on the right hand of His Father."