Just over a week ago, the Christmas lights on Temple Square were turned on, continuing a tradition of 53 years and, for many, marking the beginning of the Christmas season. At Christmas we celebrate the birth, life, and light of Jesus Christ, the literal Son of God and the Savior of the world. We find hope in the pronouncement that accompanied His birth: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”1 Music, excited children, gifts to give and receive, Christmas trees, decorations, and lights are all part of the joyous celebration.
When you think of Christmas, what cherished memories come to mind? For me, this time of year always brings memories of Christmas celebrations from my childhood.
I can still remember many of the gifts I received. I remember a football and a basketball, toys and clothes. Most of those gifts are now gone and forgotten; the clothes are worn out and outgrown. But what I remember most of Christmases past—my most poignant and favorite memories—are not about what I received but what I gave.
Let me explain. Each year, on the Saturday before Christmas, the youth of our ward gathered at our church. We filled baskets with oranges, bananas, and homemade cookies and cakes to deliver to widows who lived nearby. We went to their homes, sang Christmas carols, and gave Christmas baskets. I still remember their grateful smiles. Some of them were first- or second-generation immigrants expressing their gratitude in heavily accented English: Sisters Swartz, Zbinden, Groll, and Kackler. I will never forget the warm feeling this embedded in my heart.
When Lesa and I became parents, we started a tradition of giving Christmas gifts to a family in need, as many of you do. We often received the name of a family from a community charity, along with the ages of the children. We spent much time and effort to find just the right gifts for them. Our sons seemed to enjoy this as much as receiving their own presents on Christmas Day! This family tradition of service helped to etch the true spirit of Christmas in our hearts.
In my professional life, I was involved in the development, manufacturing, and marketing of fitness equipment around the world. Equipment like treadmills, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines is designed primarily to strengthen the heart. Indeed, at our company we went to great lengths to ensure that equipment users could accurately measure the condition and activity levels of their heart through heart-rate monitors. Today, many of us wear technology on our wrists that monitors our heart and encourages activities to strengthen our heart.
What if there were a way to measure the condition of your heart from a spiritual perspective—a spiritual heart monitor, if you will? What would your heart monitor say? How spiritually healthy is your heart? The Christmas season seems like an ideal time for us to thoughtfully evaluate the status of our own heart.
For example, you might ask yourself, “Is my heart prepared to receive the Savior?” At Christmastime we often sing, “Let every heart prepare him room.”2 How can you prepare room in your heart for Christ, especially during this busy yet wonderful season?
The scriptures are replete with descriptions that can help us evaluate the condition of our heart. Some verses include words like “pure,”3 “meek,”4 “lowly,”5 “broken,”6 and “contrite.”7 These words, and many others throughout scripture, give us insight into the Savior’s heart. In order to receive Him into our hearts, surely our hearts must be pure and humble like His.
To paraphrase the words of Paul, we can strive to have the words and attributes of Jesus Christ written like an “epistle … in our hearts, known and read of all men: … the epistle of Christ … written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.”8 This requires more than just pleasant Christmas greetings that fall from our lips. The Lord warned us against those who “[gather] near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”9 During this Christmas and throughout the year, our kind deeds and good works are the best indication of our love for the Savior, written in our hearts.
As I consider the condition of my own heart, I find inspiration and great examples to follow in the hearts and sacrifice of those who helped establish the Church in the early days of its Restoration. I would like to share a Christmas story about an early Latter-day Saint convert from Immingham, England: Mary Wood Littleton.
Mary and her husband, Paul, never thought they would leave their home in England. But they heard the message of the restored gospel and gained a testimony of its truthfulness. They were baptized, and just two months later, Mary and Paul, along with their children, sailed to America to gather with the Saints. They arrived in New York on December 20, 1844. Five days later, they traveled by stagecoach to Nauvoo, Illinois. Just imagine—journeying in the cold weather over rough, difficult roads, they celebrated their first Christmas Day in America.
Despite all these changes, Mary kept hope in her heart that her family would someday celebrate Christmas as they had in England, with wreaths, Father Christmas, and caroling. Unfortunately, their second Christmas in America, in 1845, wasn’t much better—they spent it in a wagon box that Paul had turned into a makeshift home while the family struggled to establish themselves in Nauvoo. Again, with a hope-filled heart, Mary said, “Next year, Christmas will be different.”
The following year in 1846, the family’s third Christmas in America, Mary and the children found themselves in Winter Quarters, preparing for what would be a long trek west in the spring. Mobs had driven them from Nauvoo, and Paul was walking west with the Mormon Battalion—several hundred miles away. Again, there was no caroling and no Father Christmas. Instead, there was fasting and sincere prayer in behalf of Mary’s eight-year-old son, who was near death with severe malnutrition. He survived, but 25 others in Winter Quarters died that very Christmas Day.
It wasn’t until her fourth Christmas in America, having recently arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, that Mary and her family celebrated Christmas together in relative peace. Even then, it was not the kind of celebration she had experienced in England. Yet, in some ways, it was even better. On a Sabbath day Christmas celebration, the day after Christmas in 1847, the Saints gathered to pray, express words of thanksgiving, and sing songs of praise to God for their deliverance in Zion. One of these songs was a heartfelt rendition of “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” a hymn written on the pioneer trail that had become an anthem of faith to these early pioneer Saints. Thereafter, “Come, Come, Ye Saints” remained a favorite hymn, even a Christmas carol, at pioneer Christmas celebrations.10
I believe Mary’s challenges over the years did something to change her heart. She seemed to see Christmas more clearly, with new Christmas traditions and a new song in her heart. She had truly developed a heart of sacrifice, centered in her hope in and love for Jesus Christ.
The Christmas season seems to be an appropriate time to contemplate how healthy our hearts are spiritually, and so I close with a simple suggestion that might help us monitor and strengthen our spiritual hearts: I invite each of us to choose to do something that expresses, in an outward way, our inward feelings about the Savior Jesus Christ as the gift we give Him this year.
Like Mary Littleton, we are gathered tonight as faithful followers of Jesus Christ to worship Him. Let’s now listen closely as the choir joins with “choirs of angels” in a beautiful and beckoning hymn inviting “all ye faithful” to “come and behold him, born the King of angels.” No matter where we may live around the world, we can each “come, … joyful and triumphant … to Bethlehem”—even if only in our heart—to adore and honor Him.11
I offer my witness of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. May we have the Spirit of Christ written upon our hearts throughout the holiday season and into the new year is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.