One hundred and seventy-four years ago a Persian nobleman walked out of Paradise.
In that rose-filled refuge called Ridvan (Arabic for ‘paradise’), Baha’u’llah had just revealed something those close to him already knew, or at least suspected: he was the Promised One, anticipated by all the great religious traditions and the deepest of cultural longings.
After a twelve-day respite in the Ridvan garden, Baha’u’llah’s family and a band of chosen followers accompanied him on a further banishment away from the “cradle of civilization.” After ten years spent far from his Tehran home, in Baghdad, near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Ottoman government had banished Baha’u’llah once again.
Baha’is know the story but if you don’t, BahaiTeachings.org has an article for the first, the ninth and the twelfth days of this twelve-day Festival of Ridvan. Essentially, it comes down to this: Baha’u’llah, born into the Persian aristocracy, had been stripped of privilege and possessions for his embrace of the Babi movement. Exiled from his homeland, the authorities attempted to extinguish a spiritual revolution announced by a young man known as the Bab (which means “the Gate”). However, ten years in Baghdad, then a bastion of the Turkish empire, had only increased Baha’u’llah’s prestige and the reverence shown towards him even by the public. This alarmed leaders of the declining Persian empire to the east, who wanted him sent farther away so his influence wouldn’t spread even more than it already had. The Turks complied, and “invited” Baha’u’llah to move west to Constantinople (now Istanbul), the centre of Turkish power. The twelve days of Ridvan mark this departure, which had many of the citizens of Baghdad and especially the Babi community in obvious distress and sorrow.
It’s a grim picture, on the face of it. You may be thinking “So what’s with you Baha’is, anyway? You call this a Festival?! You call it Paradise?”
Yes, but it’s not just that: Baha’u’llah termed this deepening of his banishment the “Divine Springtime,” the “Day of supreme felicity,” the “King of Festivals.” Baha’is celebrate this period as one of history’s great examples of misfortune being transmuted into victory, of degradation turned to glory. (For anyone of a Christian background, like me, the transformation of Christ’s martyrdom into the Easter joy of his Cause’s victory over extinction is another epic example.) So how does that happen? Why is Ridvan so special, among all the high points of the Baha’i calendar?
After all, Baha’is have wonderful holy days. For example, about a month before Ridvan, Baha’is around the globe celebrate Naw-Ruz (“New Day”) as the start of a new year, the welcoming of Spring in the northern hemisphere, and probably their best excuse to dress up!
Many Baha’is dearly love a Baha’i holy day known as the Declaration of the Bab, because the story is so dramatic and well-told, and that brilliant evening is the beginning of everything that Baha’is hold most dear: 1844; the start; the opening act of a stupendous spiritual drama.
In 2017, we will honour the 200th anniversary of Baha’u’llah’s birth. It will be a huge thing for the global Baha’i community. Two years from now, in 2019, we’ll celebrate the 200th anniversary of The Bab’s birth. Baha’is want to learn how to make these anniversaries more befittingly revere the lives and the mighty works of Siyyid Ali Muhammad (the Bab) and Mirza Husayn Ali (Baha’u’llah). These are great, momentous days to honour, but unlike in Christianity, the births of our founders, while obviously important, are not the high points of the annual calendar.
Instead, Ridvan is the “Most Mighty Festival” for Baha’is. Many of us took the three special days off work – the 1st Day of Ridvan, which commemorates Baha’u’llah’s entry into the garden, a proclamation that the bitter water of exile was being turned into the wine of celebration; the 9th Day of Ridvan, when Baha’u’llah’s family joined him in the garden; and the 12th Day of Ridvan, when Baha’u’llah and his retinue left Baghdad for a rugged four-month journey through the heat of summer to Constantinople, now known as Istanbul.
On these special days, Baha’is had our parties and observances, and we loved the roses that have become the symbol of that fragrant garden where Baha’u’llah declared his mission. But listen: among all the things we can learn about the message of Baha’u’llah and how it is being applied in the world, surely one of the most important elements involves understanding why Baha’u’llah designated these twelve days as the greatest festival we have. He famously advised:
Take heed lest anything deter thee from extolling the greatness of this Day—the Day whereon the Finger of majesty and power hath opened the seal of the Wine of Reunion, and called all who are in the heavens and all who are on the earth. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 28.
So, back to the original question: what’s so great about the Ridvan Festival? What makes it the holiest of all days for Baha’is? For the answer, in the next essay I’ll try to explain a little further.