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Every year on November 12th, my family and I celebrate the birth of Baha’u’llah. For the past five years, we’ve celebrated in China –where we’ve gained a new perspective on what Baha’u’llah brought to the world.
We understand this astonishing country a little better than we could have from our comfortable domestic couches. We also know our native Canada more deeply because we have seen it from here. Our son speaks fluent Mandarin. We have had the privilege of being, in our local and impatient and undoubtedly clumsy ways, temporary midwives to the slow birth of an understanding, in the world’s most populous nation, of the Baha’i way of being and doing. It has been amazing. It has been unsettling, in the best possible sense of the word.
Every November 12th we share with a small group of friends the story of a noble Persian family that gave Mirza Husayn Ali, Baha’u’llah, to the world in 1817, and what that has meant to a transforming, unifying human race. We gather with the other expatriate friends in our city – here, luckily, we can meet monthly – and we remember the meaning behind those precious stories.
We have some distance to cover until we catch up with the Baha’is who celebrate in cities where the Faith has a deeper and longer history, where larger numbers of believers take this joyous holy day off from work and give themselves over to mindful partying! Recently, I came across memories of a Birth of Baha’u’llah commemoration in Ottawa, Canada, before we came to the Country of the Future Present. This was how it looked from back home:
So fine, hanging out with the Bahá’ís as the local members of this world-wide community and their friends celebrated one of the Faith’s happiest holy days, the birth of its Founder, Baha’u’llah. He was born in Tehran in 1817, but in a modern re-telling of an ancient tale – “a prophet hath no honor in his own country”, as Christ said – that descendant of Persian kings was banished from His homeland and died far from native soil. That exile, intended to silence and humiliate Baha’u’llah, resulted in glory and fulfillment and ongoing echoes through the centuries that have followed. Incredible. I imagine that the twelfth of November in 2017 will be a mighty day in the Baha’i universe. Bicentennial. 200th birthday! (And my goodness, better stand back when those crazy Baha’is start celebrating…)
Okay, so there probably won’t be a need for riot police and pepper spray, but I like partying with the wonderful array of world citizens in every Baha’i community anyway! The courtesy never fails to refresh, the greetings are warm, the conversation inevitably has meaning, and the laughter comes easily. (In fact, I found the conversations so good that I forgot to elbow my way to the rather spectacular dessert table. A shocking omission, but then I’d already fortified myself with a neighborly lunch before the mid-afternoon bonanza.)
Let me tell you: this is important fun, if that’s no contradiction. (Too often, an iron-bound divider separates amusement – must be extreme, must be loud, must be trivial – and social betterment – must be stern, humourless and vaguely apocalyptic.) At the Birth of Baha’u’llah, the fun is important, we take joy seriously, and reverence unfrowns itself. We have solemn prayer beside the balloons. We have a quiet commitment to shared learning that lurks behind every second conversational giggle. The greatness of the Life being honoured could not be separated from the sweetness of such a reunion with such friends.
Part of the joy was the evident progress of our ability to be in community. The Baha’is are learning how to build hopeful, open and outward-looking communities. We are understanding, steady by quick, how to not just tolerate but to venerate, to celebrate diversity while we stand together on the essentials. So: a 15-year-old classical violinist shared the stage with a young white gospel singer; exuberant African drumming and singing followed the plaintive strains of traditional Persian drumming, chanting and the plucking of the Persian tar. French, English, Arabic and Farsi, spoken and chanted and sung. A spiritual smorgasbord – thank-you, Sweden, for that delicious word – followed by pot-luck tasties and a banquet table of new and renewed conversations. The poet William Blake invited us, well before the Birth of Baha’u’llah, “To see a World in a grain of sand And a Heaven in a wild flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour…” And God help us, I think we did.
Now, this is how to party. Happy birthday to us!