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The Most Great Festival of the Baha’i calendar has begun, and I’m all in.
That festival—called “Ridvan,” an Arabic word meaning “paradise” (the best my Canadian mouth can manage is something like “Rez-VAHN”)—spans a 12-day period that celebrates the public mission statement of the Baha'i Faith’s founder, Baha’u’llah, in a Baghdad garden in 1863.
During Ridvan in 1863, this Persian nobleman, already stripped of wealth and social status and banished from his homeland as a prisoner, turned a supposedly humiliating further exile into, well, a mighty big party now celebrated by millions around the globe. He described his declaration in The Ridvan Tablet:
This is the Dawning-Place of the Cause of God, were ye to recognize it. This is the Source of the commandment of God, did ye but judge it fairly. This is the manifest and hidden Secret; would that ye might perceive it ….The Best-Beloved is come. In His right hand is the sealed Wine of His name …. Every hidden thing hath been manifested through the power of truth. All the favours of God have been sent down … Rejoice with exceeding gladness, O people of Baha, as ye call to remembrance the Day of supreme felicity … - Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 34.
This is why it takes the Baha’is 12 days to honor it properly! On Day 1, April 21st, I joined in with a big crowd of Baha’is and their friends on one of the first warmly bright afternoons of a slow-moving Canadian spring. We reflected on how we’d gotten here—not to the community hall, but to our current stage of development.
I’ve been trying to follow Baha’u’llah’s mighty system of knowledge and practice for a long time now, and it got me thinking about histories: my own, that of the Baha’i community over the past two centuries, and even about earlier spiritual encounters with a new Millennium.
It occurred to me that I would have made a very poor 1st- or 2nd-century Christian. I would’ve wanted the Kingdom to come NOW! But as we all know, the growth of Christianity was slow, and the times were confusing. Look: the Gregorian calendar that dates our lives based on Jesus’s life hadn’t even been invented; 100 years after Christ, the word “Christian” was just beginning to distinguish this tiny community from the many other Jewish cults and sects that had arisen.
Even 300 years after the events of the Gospel, Christ’s followers were found only in tiny pockets of what we call the Middle East, Turkey, northern Africa and southern Europe, basically within a few donkey-riding days of the Mediterranean Sea. They were still getting their holy book, their doctrines and dogmas together in 325 C.E., and the Christians wouldn’t become a major population even in the Mediterranean region until the 6th Century.
Today, Christianity has become the world’s most widespread religion. We take its supernatural degree of influence and prestige for granted, but I would have been so impatient as an early Christian!
When I joined the Baha’i community as a 1970s teenager, I fretted: “Why are other faith groups, often younger than the Baha’i Revelation, growing so much faster than we are?” Various sects and outright cults made a big splash on city streets, in news media and in their growth. I wasn’t tempted to join them, or even emulate their methods, but their bursts of public prominence bugged me.
A wise Baha’i elder told me: “Think about what we are trying to grow. If you look at two plants in their first season of growth—one of them a pumpkin, one of them an oak tree—your conclusion might be easy. The pumpkin is obviously more impressive, vines and bright flowers and, within months, gigantic orange fruits! Meanwhile, the oak looks like a barren twig. The community of Baha’u’llah grows like an oak tree; as impressive as pumpkins seem to be, at the end of a year you have a few pumpkin pies and maybe a rotting jack-o-lantern, and that’s it.”
That made sense to me then. Many movements, 1900 years ago, would have soundly defeated the Christians on a “Most Likely To Succeed” poll. But the church of Jesus, in the above analogy, was a slow-growing but eventually mighty oak tree, not a flash-in-the-pumpkin-pie-pan. Perhaps that’s why the Baha'i Faith has now become the world’s second-most widespread religion.
I still have a lot to learn about patience, but the evolution of the Baha’i community, from its quietly intimate beginnings among the roses in the Garden of Ridvan to what I see now, is even faster. Just over 150 years since Baha’u’llah announced his mission in Baghdad—which isn’t as long ago as our present-focused obsessions can make it seem—his writings speak to our present outlook at least as strongly as they spoke to the hearts and minds of his first hearers. He wrote:
This is the Day in which God’s most excellent favors have been poured out upon men, the Day in which His most mighty grace hath been infused into all created things. It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and, with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness. It behooveth them to cleave to whatsoever will, in this Day, be conducive to the exaltation of their stations, and to the promotion of their best interests …. Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead. – Ibid., p. 6.
In the second part of this essay, we’ll look at five ringing moments in the growth of the mighty tree that the world-transforming Baha’i movement has now become.