February 9, 2016

Ash Wednesday - A Time of Preparation

Tomorrow is what most Christians celebrate as Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of Lent, which is a time of reflection, repentance, self-denial, fasting, and preparation for the coming Easter. Many Christians will mark the season of Lent by giving up something in their life that draws them away from the Savior. To commemorate the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday each member of the congregation will come before the priest to have a small cross marked upon their forehead. The ashes are from the burned palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday, and are mixed with a small amount of oil or water. The ashes symbolize the ancient custom of repenting in sackcloth and ashes (see Daniel 9:3), and the sign of the cross foreshadows the crucifixion. These 40 days before Easter (46 days minus the six Sundays) are to call our minds to the 40 days when Jesus fasted in preparation for his own ministry, and our own preparation for the most sacred time of the year.

As I have been preparing for Holy Week this year, I thought of how the Savior prepared his own disciples for his final week of life. In the weeks and months leading up to the crucifixion Jesus prophesied of his impending death on three separate occasions. Each of these prophecies were used to help the disciples prepare for the tragic, yet glorious coming events.

The first prophesy took place six days before the Transfiguration (generally dated from about six months to only a few weeks before Jesus' final week). Just before Jesus uttered the prophecy, he asked his disciples "Whom do men say that I am?" (Mark 8:27). The disciples each told the Savior of whom others said that he was, and Jesus then asked them "But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ” (8:29). Immediately following this confession of faith, Jesus then gave the first of three prophecies: "And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (8:31). One of the powerful lessons of these prophecies is the responses given by the apostles to the Savior. On this first occasion, Peter takes Jesus and rebukes him, after which Jesus censures Peter by calling him Satan and says unto him that he "savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men" (8:33). One can only image the sting that Peter must have felt. Only moments before he had expressed his devotion and belief, only to be given the most harsh rebuke that he had most likely ever received.

A short time after this first prophecy (perhaps only a few weeks later), as they began the trek towards Jerusalem, while still in the Galilee, Jesus spoke the next prophecy. “For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day” (Mark 9:31). The response of the disciples is in stark contrast to the first, in that they “understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him” (9:32). After the stinging rebuke of Peter, it is understandable that none of the disciples would want to respond in any way.

As they continued their travels to Jerusalem, and just before they had reached Jericho (only a short distance from Jerusalem), Jesus uttered the third prophecy saying, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles: And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again” (Mark 10:33-34). The response to this last prophecy by the disciples is marked by utter silence. Not even their inner-most feelings are recorded in the Gospels. Only days later, Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem with shouts of acclimation on what now is called Palm Sunday.

Why then would Jesus make these three prophecies to his disciples in the weeks before his crucifixion? It seems to me that he wanted to prepare them not only for the tragic events of Holy Week, but to teach them of who he truly was. To teach them that he would not be the Messiah that they thought he was, a political leader who would free them from the chains of Roman control, but instead a suffering Messiah who would free them from the greater chains of sin and death. Each of these three responses of the disciples teaches us of how the disciples truly saw Jesus. Likewise, we too should ask ourselves the same question: “But whom say ye that I am?”

During this Lenten season, perhaps the most important thing we can give up is the misconceptions we hold of who we think Jesus is. Let us see him as he is, and fully accept his sacrifice on our behalf. When faced with the awful cross, let us accept his death, and not work to impede the power of the atonement in our lives. Instead let us meekly, and humbly accept the Savior for who he is, the true Messiah who came to suffer, die and rise again for our sakes!

January 24, 2016

Interior Architectural Details of the Provo City Center Temple

The new Provo City Center Temple is by far one of the most unique and beautiful temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The exterior of the temple was built from the burned out remains of the old historic Provo Tabernacle, completed in 1898. To help preserve the historical integrity of the old ravaged Tabernacle, the church architects sought to incorporate many of the details from the original building. Here are just a few of those interior details that one may observe while visiting the temple.

Stained Glass Windows

One of the first things that you will likely notice is the many beautiful stained glass windows. The original Tabernacle had several window designs, including beehives, an open book of scriptures, a single candle flame, and several different flower motifs. For the most part, the outside window designs are the same as the original, minus sandstone panels that were added to the main floor windows because the ceiling had to accommodate duct work between the floors.

Examples of some of the stained glass windows in the Provo City Center Temple
When the Tabernacle was being built in the 1890s, electrical lighting was still an emerging technology. [1] Thus, exterior and interior windows were used extensively to naturally light the Tabernacle. The new temple replicates this traditional lighting technique by having the interior rooms lit through a serious of windows on the exterior. In addition, the design of the interior windows replicates the same design as the closest exterior window, in other words, if the closest outside window uses a book of scriptures as the design, the interior window will also show this same motif.

Though not original to the old Tabernacle, a beautiful 120 year old stained glass window was installed in the main entryway. The window depicts Christ holding a lamb and is patterned after the illustration by O.A. Stemler (1872-1953) entitled The Good Shepherd. The window originally was from a Presbyterian Church in New York, which was then purchased by a member and donated to the Temple. A very similar window can be found in the First United Methodist church of Salt Lake City.

Stained glass window of the Good Shepherd (courtesy Mormon Newsroom)

The design of the door handles, push plates and hinges were inspired by the floral and scroll motifs found in the stained glass windows. In particular, the door handles of the Celestial room are an almost exact duplicate of the beehive style windows. Notice how the metalwork incorporates the beehive, the gothic arch, the flower-bud pillars and bases, and the decorative scroll pattern on the bottom. In addition, the door handles include an acorn on the top and bottom, a design found in the original door handles of the old Tabernacle.


The woodwork in the new temple is, to say the least, stunning. One of the most notable details is the newel post design that was replicated from the original Tabernacle. These posts can be found throughout the temple, including in the railings around the baptistry, the grand staircase, and in the waiting area. A similar acorn pattern as found on the top of the door handles, was also used on the corners of the altars and corner woodwork of the sealing rooms.

In the original Tabernacle, a concentric circle pattern was used in the woodwork of the balcony, choir seating area, and podium rostrum. The new temple uses this same pattern in the rostrum of the new chapel, and in the staircases, in particular the grand staircase in the center of the temple. The only original piece of woodwork found in the temple is an intricately carved 4" tall piece from the original pulpit. "The tabernacle’s pulpit was removable and had been moved for a musical performance when the fire occurred in late December 2010." [2]

Comparison of the Provo Tabernacle balcony and the new temple rostrum (photos from HBLL and Mormon newsroom)
The gothic arch is also another dominate feature within the new temple and can be found in the hallways, the windows, and other woodwork. One gothic arch motif in particular is based off of the woodwork of the original organ base and was replicated in the terrestrial room (including in the altar, walls, and chairs), the celestial room, and in the sealing rooms.

The columbine flower, native to the forests around Utah County, can be found throughout the temple, from the woodwork in the walls, to the hand crafted chairs. In ancient Christian tradition, the columbine represented the Holy Spirit, as it was thought by some to look like a dove. [3]

As with most temples, the Provo City Center temple includes the circle and the square motif in many of the wood details. The circle represents eternity, and the square represents earth, or the four corners of the earth, thus the symbol shows how heaven and earth combine within the walls of the temple. Of similar design is the eternal circle pattern, found on some of the furniture in the Celestial room.

Stencils and Wallpaper

When workers were combing through the wreckage of the Tabernacle, they discovered some of the original stenciling patterns found beneath layers of paint on the burned walls. The design was incorporated into the stenciling of the bride's dressing room. Workers also found burned pieces of old Victorian style wallpaper. A similar patterned wallpaper was used throughout the temple to replicate this historic detail. [4] William Folsom, the architect of the original Provo Tabernacle, also designed the Manti Temple and the Assembly Hall, among other buildings. [5] Many of the architectural details from these two buildings were likewise incorporated into the design features, including the stencil designs and woodwork of the Terrestrial and Celestial rooms.

Original Tabernacle stenciling compared with new Temple stenciling (photos from Mormon Newsroom)


As part of the endowment ceremony, participants learn about the plan of salvation, and how to return back to the presence of God through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Much of the design and architecture of the various rooms of the endowment symbolically convey the concept of moving from an earthly existence to that of heaven. When you begin the endowment, you start in one of two rooms on the main floor. Both rooms have beautiful murals that depict the various days of creation shown as you progress around the room. It is worth noting the cougar, BYU's mascot, in one of the murals, perhaps playing to the fact that both painters are BYU alumni.

As you move from this first instruction room, to the second, and on into the Celestial room, one climbs the spiral stairs to the next floor, finding that the ceiling height, size of the room, amount of light, and ornate woodwork has increased with each new room. Again, this design aspect is to show our symbolic progress moving heavenward back into the presence of God.

Provo City Center Temple cross section showing the progression of the endowment
The ancient Tabernacle of Moses was designed to have three levels of progression, the outer court, the holy place, and the holy of holies, moving from east to west as you progress towards holiness. The new Provo City Center temple incorporates a similar three level progression, with the progression from the Terrestrial to the Celestial room in a westward direction, the same direction as the ancient Tabernacle of Moses.

Another unique aspect of the endowment rooms is the use of bench style seating. From behind the rows are designed to look like the old tabernacle pews, but from the front, they are individual cushioned seats.

Interior Lights and Lamps

As a final last note, when you visit, make sure to notice the interior lights and lamps. There are numerous types of old oil lamps, converted to electric, to help add to the historic feel of the building. Even the modern exit signs were modified, giving them a more Victorian style look so they would better fit the style of the building.

The new Provo City Center temple is truly amazing. It is a beautiful tribute and monument to the sacrifices of the early pioneers who built the first structure, and to the Lord, whose house it is.

[1] Electrical Development in Utah
[3] Flowers, Plants, and Trees; Christian Symbols in Art and Architecture
[4] Special thanks to Scott M. Haskins, Art Conservator, who shared information and pictures from his research regarding the stencil patterns and wallpaper (click here for a detailed report by Scott)
[5] Temple Interior Showing Newel Post; From Tabernacle to Temple

Special thanks to Brian Olson who shared his plan elevation of the temple, and for his many insights about the plans and architecture of the new temple.

January 13, 2016

The Baptistry in Mormon Temples

One of the most unique rooms found in modern temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the baptistry. The room includes a large baptismal font placed on the back of twelve oxen used for baptisms for the dead. The font is patterned after the "molten sea" or laver that was found in the ancient temple of Solomon (see 1 Kings 7:23-26), the water in the laver being used for various washing rituals. Oxen in the scriptures "are established types for Israel and represent power, patience, and sacrifice, as well as Christ or deity." [1] Solomon's temple, and many modern LDS temples have the twelve oxen facing in the four cardinal directions. This represents "the twelve tribes of Israel, who were scattered to the four corners of the earth—and who must be gathered from the four corners of the earth through the ordinance of baptism." [2] In addition, most temple baptismal fonts are either below ground, or on the lowest floor to represent the grave, baptism representing death, burial and the resurrection.

When teaching about the resurrection to the Corinthians, Paul used the practice of baptisms for the dead as evidence of the resurrection stating: "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:29).

When teaching Nicodemus, Jesus taught "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). Jesus taught that all must be baptized to enter heaven, the problem is that there are millions of God's children who never have even heard the name of Jesus, yet alone had the opportunity to be baptized. According to many churches, these people will be condemned for the eternities because of something that is completely out of their control, that of learning about and accepting Christ through baptism.

We believe that God is a merciful God. Because he loves all of his children, he created a plan for those who never have had the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ and be baptized in this life. Those who die before hearing the gospel will have the chance to hear about Christ after they have died. These children of God will then have the chance to accept or reject the message of the Savior, and then those on the earth can be baptized for and in behalf of them in temples of the Lord. The baptism is only valid if the deceased person accepts the ordinance. The act of baptism for the dead is an act of compassion, not a way to force someone to believe. It is God's way of allowing all to be baptized and to receive the blessings of the gospel, even if they have never had the opportunity in this life.

[1] The Lost Language of Symbolism, by Alonzo L. Gaskill, page 257 (see Oxen)
[2] The Lost Language of Symbolism, page 134 (see Twelve)

December 22, 2015

Ancient Birth Customs - Nativity Story

Interview with Rebecca Holt Stay, Instructor of Biblical Studies - BYU Continuing Education

There's not a lot of description in antiquity of the details of something as mundane as birth. And so when it gets mentioned, it's usually done in some kind of symbolic context or in telling a story. And probably the most powerful place where a story of birth is told is in Ezekiel 16, which describes the birth of the nation of Israel. It has been born out of the waters of the Red Sea as a young girl. This girl will grow up to be the bride of God that He will marry at Sinai. And at this point, the description is given of that birth of that little girl. "As for thy nativity, in the day that thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast that washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee" (Ezekiel 16:4-5). So by saying those things didn't happen, the text is saying that's the norm. This is what normally happens. You normally would have a midwife there who is going to show compassion on this child and help the mother.

Each of those steps is important. First, the umbilical cord would be cut, probably tied off. Then the child would be washed in order to get the blood off, and the next step is the salting of the child. Now there are a lot of symbols of what salt means in scripture. In terms of hygiene the reason for the salting is that the salt is an antibiotic, and it's going to kill germs that might be present on the skin of the child. Perhaps a disease it might have contacted from its mother at birth, or to kill anything that has gotten on its skin. So it has a very real healthy meaning, that's why it would be salted. Some of the symbols, some will say that because salt is given with the sacrifices at the temple, that this might be preparing a child as an offering. (see for example Leviticus 2:13). Salt is also a preservative, so it may be done to preserve the life of the child. Of course, that's also the hygienic purpose, is preserving the life of the child.

Then it mentions, you are "not swaddled at all." Now there's only two mentions of swaddling in the Old Testament and this is one of them. And a child being swaddled means wrapped in rags or clothes prepared for the purpose of providing a diaper and a covering for the child. Every child normally would be swaddled. The fact that she isn't swaddled is really unusual. Now because that's such a normal thing to do, it made me wonder, why would swaddling bands be a sign in the book of Luke? Because that's what it says, as the shepherds are being told to go and see the child, they are told: "You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12). Every child is wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger is unusual. I really love the fact that the King James translators kept that french word, because 'mange' means to eat. And this is the bread of life who has been born (see John 6:51). Christ is the 'bread of life,' and we will ceremonially eat his body, and so that's suggested by that use of 'manger.'

So I decided I would look back into the Old Testament and see how swaddling bands could be a sign of anything? So the only other place that you find it, other than in this description in Ezekiel of swaddling every newborn child, is when you're in the book of Job. And God is responding to Job's questions about why do bad things happen to good people. And he essentially says, "What do you know Job? Where you there when I created the world? Where you there at the foundation of the world when I built the world?" And then he uses this beautiful metaphor for the creation of the world. He describes it as "who do you think shut up the sea with doors, when it then broke forth, as if it [the earth, newborn earth] had issued out of the womb? When I made the clouds the garments thereof, and thick dark clouds a swaddling band for [the earth]" (Job 38:9).

So here you have a newborn planet that has just been created. And it is wrapped in these clouds that are the swaddling bands. I love that, because the cloud is a symbol of someone in the Old Testament. That does relate to one person, and the cloud is the symbol of the presence of Jehovah. There is a pillar of cloud by day over His tabernacle. His chariot is a cloud. And so when he is born into mortality, He is wrapped in His symbol. In clouds, "trailing clouds of glory" does He come, from His Father who is His home, from the Wordsworth poem. [1]

[1] Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth

December 15, 2015

Who were the Wise men? - Nativity Story

Interview with Rebecca Holt Stay, Instructor of Biblical Studies - BYU Continuing Education

"When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem saying 'where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him'" (Matthew 2:1-2). No mention of them being kings. No mention of how many. No mention of how they traveled. But there's a lot of clues there about them. The fact that they were in the east when they saw the star, that's how I choose to read it, rather than that wherever they are, they saw the star in the east. But rather that they were in the east when they saw the star, and east of Jerusalem is where the vast majority of Jews were actually living at the time of Christ.

The Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon 600 years before the birth of Christ, and they never came home. Only a small contingent returned to Jerusalem. So the center of learning for the Jews was Babylon. And that's where the wise men would be. Wise men like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And so they will continue to be advisers to the court and will be literate, scientific men who in Babylon would be studying astronomy for the signs of the sky, and to determine when to have the holy days that are spoken of in scripture. So if you're coming to worship the King of the Jews, odds are you're Jewish. And you're reading about Him in a Jewish book, which would be the Old Testament.

And Isaiah in particular, has a lot to say about those who come to worship the King of the Jews. And I think that Christians asked a lot of questions as this story in Matthew was told and written down. They wanted more information. Where did they come from? What were their names? How did they get there? And so they turned back to their scriptures to find those answers. And so it's in chapter 60 of Isaiah, we get a lot of indication of where those answers came from.

It begins: "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee" (Isaiah 60:1). So the light has arisen, the star is there. And in verse 3: "And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising." So immediately we say "Aah! There gentile Kings!" And then it says: "a multitude of camels will cover thee, the dromedaries" (Isaiah 60:6) and so we have camels as the way they're coming, and in particular, dromedary camels. Coming from Midian, and Ephah, and Sheba. Well there you have the three countries, so there are three of them. And in particular, Ephah and Midian are middle eastern countries. Sheba is Ethiopia, and so one of these kings must be black. They'll end up with names from the early Christians being named Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior. Those are just honestly made up names, but they're great names! And then it describes what these gentile kings will bring: "they will bring gold and incense; and shew forth the praises of the Lord" (Isaiah 60:6). So in my mind I think, OK, we have Jewish men who are educated, and literate, and they read in the scriptures that there will be a star (that's from the book of Numbers) that will arise at his birth, in the prophecies of Balaam. So looking for that star, they search the heavens, and finding a star that they believe to be that star, they say "When that star arises, we got to get camels, and go. And what we need to bring is gold and incense." And so they will bring gold, which is a kingly gift. They'll bring incense, probably two different kinds, frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense was offered at the temple with every offering, both on the altar of prayer and the altar of sacrifice. Myrrh was melted down and mixed in a special recipe into the anointing oil of the temple, and was also used for anointing the bodies of the dead. So there's some great symbolism there.

And then goes on and talks about some other great pieces. "Doves in the window," and so we'll see doves in every manger scene (Isaiah 60:8). It has the "glory of Lebanon shall come to thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box to beautify the place of my sanctuary" (Isaiah 60:13). And so most of our sanctuaries, our churches, are decorated with the evergreen trees and branches, because Isaiah said so.

And I love the idea that these men read the scriptures and said "somebody's got to do it, why not us! We will be the ones who will fulfill the prophecies of the Lord and we will get to meet the Messiah!" And so it's really cool to think of those years (that at least two years that they traveled), and talked about what this is going to be like. And then to fall on their knees as they meet the Christ child and His parents. What an amazing moment that must have been to pay them back for their efforts.

December 8, 2015

The Heavenly Host - Nativity Story

Interview with Rebecca Holt Stay, Instructor of Biblical Studies - BYU Continuing Education

There appeared to the shepherds an angel of the Lord. "And the glory of the Lord shown round about them: and they were soar afraid. And the angel said, 'Fear not, I bring you good tidings of great joy!'" (Luke 2:10). Now of course, good tidings is the term that means 'gospel.' So "Good tidings of great joy." And 'joy' in the Old Testament is always associated with two things: one, with having children, and second, with receiving a forgiveness of sins. This combines both of those themes. And that is to be given to all people, "'For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.' And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God" (Luke 2:11-14).

Now when you speak of 'host' as a biblical term, 'host' or 'tsabaot' in Hebrew means army. Jehovah is called 'Yahweh tsabaot,' or Jehovah, the leader of the army. So what we're getting here is not a choir of putee little cherubs with pink cheeks and floaty wings, but rather it is much more like Gabriel coming. Gabriel's name means 'mighty warrior of God.' So when you see Gabriel, you should see an individual who has come in full armor as one of Jehovah's (Jesus') handpicked soldiers, and so that's who this is, is a military choir that has come to witness, and let people know, that the Commander and Chief of the heavenly host, the heavenly army, has been born. And that the battle is now going to ensue. And they know through their faith that their Commander and Chief is going to win this battle. And he will take back the keys of death and hell and open the prison doors and let us all go free. And thus "Tidings of great joy which shall be to all people!"

December 1, 2015

The Temple Shepherds - Nativity Story

Interview with Rebecca Holt Stay, Instructor of Biblical Studies - BYU Continuing Education

"There were in the same country as Joseph and Mary, shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night" (see Luke 2:8). We understand those to be the temple flocks, which were kept in the Bethlehem area just south of Jerusalem. And when you think of a field, it's not a field, its a hill. It's a very hilly rocky place. When my husband and I were there in the shepherd's fields of Bethlehem, a flock of sheep and goats went by. So it was a lovely experience.

But shepherd has a really deep meaning in the Old Testament. Shepherd in Hebrew is 'reu.' Now the feminine form of that is Ruth, but we'll see it in the man's name Reuel, which means shepherd of God, which is Jethro. And Moses is sent to Jethro to be taught how to shepherd God's people. But maybe more importantly, 'reu' has a second meaning and that is 'friend' because shepherds eat with the flock and therefore they are their friends. That's the connotation. So the shepherds are the friends of the sheep.

And these shepherds, and every shepherd would be out in the fields at lambing season because when the mother sheep drop the lambs there can generally be two born at the same birth. They need to there to witness which of the two lambs is the first born, because only one of those lambs will be acceptable at the temple as an offering for sin, as a first born, male, perfect lamb. And so they would have some red thread or string with them to tie loosely around the neck of the first born lamb in order to mark it as a first born. And thus it would be essential at the birth of the Lamb of God that shepherds are there to witness His birth as Mary's first born. And then just as the shepherds in the temple flock would indicate which are the first born and tell their leaders, and tell the priests at the temple which are the first born lambs, they would go out and say, "ah, the first born Lamb has been born." And bare testimony to the coming of that first born Lamb.

November 29, 2015

Advent - A Time of Preparation

Today marks the first day of the Christian Advent season. Advent means "coming" and is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. Three "comings" are celebrated at Advent; first the birth of Christ, second the coming of Christ into our lives through the communion or sacrament (the bread and wine representing his body and blood), and third the final coming of Christ at his second coming.

Advent season begins four Sundays before Christmas. During these four weeks, families attend special Masses or church services, light the four (or sometimes five) candles in their advent calendar, and study and prepare for the "comings" of Christ.

Advent is a wonderful time to reflect on our own acceptance of the Savior. It is a time when we can each ask if we have truly accepted and allowed the Savior to "come" into our life. One of my favorite things to do is to study one chapter each week from the four chapters of the Nativity (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2). As I study these chapters, I ask how I would have accepted Jesus at his birth; would I be like the wise men bringing gifts, or like Mary who humbly accepted her difficult yet important role, or Zacharias who at first doubted the angel, or even like Herod who sought to destroy the Christ child.

Below are just a few of the many Advent traditions that can be incorporated during the four weeks prior to Christmas to help prepare for the "coming" of Christ:

Lighting Candles: One of the main traditions of Advent is the lighting of the Advent wreath. The wreath includes four (or sometimes five) candles at the center of a wreath. One candle is lit on the first Sunday, two the second, three the third, and all four on the last Sunday. If the wreath has five candles, the last candle is lit on Christmas Eve or day. The colors of the candles vary between cultures and sects, but most often will have three purple, one pink, and one white (the white being the fifth candle). Because you use the same candles each night, the candles create a nice stepped effect as you progress through the four weeks. These candles represent many things, but my favorite is the symbol of light, for truly light came forth because of the birth of Christ (the light increasing until the actual night of Christmas). The color purple also represents royalty, symbolizing the "coming" of Jesus in glory as King of kings, and Lord of lords.

Advent Calendar: Many families will celebrate Advent by purchasing an Advent calendar. The calendars have 24 pockets or doors that hide a different object or piece of candy that is revealed each night. Many calendars will include a person or animal that can be added to a Christmas nativity, with the Christ child being added to the nativity on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Nativity: Another tradition is to place the nativity set out little by little throughout the month, placing a new piece (such as a shepherd, wise man or lamb) out each week as the month progresses. Some families will even place the wise men in a different room and move them closer to the manger until they arrive on Christmas Eve. Others will let children place a single piece of straw on the empty manger for each good act they perform each day. In this way, they are helping to prepare a more comfortable bed for baby Jesus.

However you may chose to celebrate Advent, my hope is that this season may be a season of rejoicing. "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).

November 28, 2015

Christmas Study Resources

One of the things that has helped me better prepare for Christmas each year is to take up a study of the story of the Nativity about a month before the actual holiday. Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas) is a great time to begin, and gives you plenty of time to read at least one book, and the two accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ as found in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. Adding this to my study during the weeks before Christmas makes this special day become all the more holy. Below are a few of the books I have enjoyed reading to prepare for Christmas:

Good Tidings of Great Joy by Eric D. Huntsman

An excellent resource for Advent. The book is divided into five main sections, which are designed to be read during the four weeks before Christmas, with the last chapter studied on Christmas eve or day. The book includes commentary, music, and activities that can be added to Advent to help increase the overall feel of this special season.

Advent of the Savior by Stephen J. Binz

Short (only 69 pages), yet concise and powerful. This has become one of my new favorites for the study of the birth of Christ. A verse-by-verse commentary on the Nativity story, yet it does not have the feel of most commentaries. Excellent insights and highly recommended!

The Nativity by Alonzo L. Gaskill

A simple, short, yet very interesting study of the Nativity story. The book is divided into sections that discuss the account of Matthew and Luke, with other supplemental material (including a short quiz to see how well you know the Nativity story). If you want a simple quick read, this is the best book to read.

Mary and Elisabeth by S. Kent Brown

BYU professor, Kent Brown, examines the lives of two of the most important women in scripture (the two mothers of the Messiah and the greatest prophet ever). As we so often gloss over the lives of Mary and Elizabeth, and focus on the birth of Jesus (who is of course the reason for the story), this is an excellent study of the lives of these two women. There is much we can learn from their examples of faith and devotion.

A Coming Christ in Advent and
An Adult Christ at Christmas by Raymond E. Brown

Short, yet very detailed and doctrine heavy booklets on the story of Christmas by Raymond Brown, one of the greatest American Catholic scholars of our day. The first booklet covers Matthew 1 and Luke 1, the second booklet covers Matthew 2 and Luke 2. This is the very condensed version of his 750 page Birth of the Messiah.

November 25, 2015

Gratitude & Thanksgiving

One of the things I have loved to do over the last while is to study the commandments of God and then try to see how the Savior and our Father in Heaven obey these same laws. We know that God is perfect and that He would not give us a law that He was not willing to obey Himself. In addition, God does not just give us laws and commandments to bind us down and subject ourselves to Him. These laws are methods that one gains power. God's laws are eternal in nature and are unchangeable.

C.S. Lewis, when deciding if he believed in a God, found that one of the strongest testimonies of God is the fact that certain rights and wrongs exist. For example, why is killing someone wrong in basically any culture in the world? Why is sleeping with another man's wife wrong in any nation of the world? How did we all decide that kindness, gentleness, love, and charity are right, while hate, envy, and discord are wrong? Is it just chance that what is right is right, and wrong is wrong almost anywhere in the world? After pondering this, C.S. Lewis came to the conclusion that there must be a greater Power behind these rights and wrongs. There must be a God.

One of these rights that has fascinated me is that of "gratitude." When I first began thinking how God obeyed this law, I was not quite sure how to answer it. I thought, why would God want us to be grateful? Why does God need gratitude? Is it just to build Himself up? Why would the scriptures say "And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments" (D&C 59:21). This is a very strong statement. This would mean that if ingratitude is one of the greatest of sins, gratitude would be one of the greatest acts of righteousness. Of course, God is God whether or not we are grateful to Him, so why gratitude then?

When I study these Laws of God I like to ask myself three questions (try it for yourself, you will be surprised by what you learn). First, how does God and the Savior obey this law? Second, why do They obey this law? And third, why would They want us to obey this law?

First, the greatest example of thanks is given by the Savior. In most of the prayers Christ gave, He gave only thanks. Here are a few examples of thanks the Savior gave to the Father:

Jesus feeds the 4,000 — Matt 15:36 "And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude."

Jesus feeds the 5,000 — John 6:11 "And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would."

Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead — "John 11:41-42 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me."

Jesus gives the sacramental wine — Mark 14:23 "And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it."

Notice that each of the times Jesus provides food for the thousands He does it by thanking the father. It never mentions that He asks that a miracle be performed, or that the Father bless the bread and fishes, He only gives thanks.

It is also significant that to perform one of the greatest miracles, that of raising Lazarus from the dead, the Savior likewise gives thanks instead of asking for a blessing. It is almost as if thanks is the sanctifying and blessing power that provides these miracles.

The Father likewise obeys the law of gratitude. This gratitude is focused toward us, in that He showers down blessings on us as we obey His commandments. This is true gratitude. It is one thing to thank someone for something they have done. It is a higher thanks to give thanks through your actions, and in particular, giving thanks by giving something of value to another. We thank God for Him blessing our lives most often through prayer. God thanks us for doing the right, by blessing our lives even more. Note that God teaches us to give our gifts in secret. No other being obeys this more than the Father. He seeks to bless us in secret, so much so, that only when we are deeply looking for His hand in our life, will we see it. He does not flaunt the blessings He gives, He does so on a daily basis, yet we rarely see His works of thanks.

This leads us to the second question of why God and the Savior obey the law of gratitude. Let me suggest that one of the strongest reasons is the power that comes from gratitude. How much more are we endeared to someone when they give gratitude for what we have done. Especially when the gift we have given is nothing in comparison to what they could have done. God sees our meager gifts, brought to the altar, as magnificent gifts of the greatest value. He never belittles us for the imperfect efforts we give, in fact He sees these actions of faith as whole and complete. Why does He do this? After all, a perfect being should expect perfect efforts. Yet, He accepts whatever gift we give. Why? Because He knows that through His gratitude towards us, we will be drawn to Him and desire to bring an even more valiant effort to the altar. Through His accepting our meager gifts, He is teaching us of His perfect patience, long-suffering, and enduring love for us. As we see these true attributes of the Father, we long to be more like Him, we long to be with Him. In short, the power of gratitude, is the power to bring unification.

Finally, why then would the Father ask us to be grateful. Again, it is not because God needs our gratitude, it because we need gratitude. As we look for the hand of God in our life, we will better know and understand the true power of God. As we learn of who God truly is, we will better be able to have a stronger faith in what He can do in our lives. As we see the bounteous blessings He has given us, we will have faith that He will continue to bless us in the future. As we are weak, we will know that by relying on Him—because of the blessing we have seen in the past—we will gain the needed strength we need to endure to the end.

This Thanksgiving season, let us begin the effort of giving thanks on a daily basis. Let us look for the "secret thanks" that our Father in Heaven gives us. Let us count our many blessings for that which He has done for us. Like the Savior of the world, let us learn to give thanks for our blessings, instead of asking for more blessings. I am grateful to live in a wonderful, free nation. I am grateful for an incredible family, for amazing parents, and for devoted friends. And most of all, I am grateful to my Savior for all He has done for me. I am grateful he gave His life for me on Calvary, and that through Him I may return to live with my loving Father in Heaven.

Truly as the Psalmist wrote: "It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto [His] name .... For [the Lord] hast made [us] glad through [His] work: [we] will triumph in the works of [His] hands" (Psalms 92:1,4).