Ridvan, also known as the Most Great Festival, celebrates Baha’u’llah’s time in the garden of Ridvan on the outskirts of Baghdad in 1863 where He publicly declared His station as a Manifestation of God. The Ridvan Festival is 12 days long and is also the time of year where Baha’is elect their local and national governing bodies, and every five years, the international governing body for the worldwide Baha’i community.
150 Years of Ridvan and Counting: Celebrating Like a Baha’i
“Going anywhere special for The Festival this year?”
“Usually we spend Paradise at home, but this year we’re going on a 12-day luxury cruise to Baghdad.”
“Really? Oh, I’m jealous. My husband just can’t miss the Ridvan golf junket in Las Vegas, so it’s going to be more reading and pomegranate tea by the pool for me…”
No, I haven’t heard many conversations like this at devotionals or reflection meetings, either! (And aren’t we lucky? Our Holy Days still focus on the holy part.) Still, it is the Most Great Festival, and who knows what it will be in futures that more or less distantly shine in our imaginations? As with the 19 Day Feast, so with Ridvan: we have only the barest notion of how to celebrate them. As with everything, we’re learning, and nothing stops our education more quickly than the thought that we know how to celebrate our festivals and nineteen-day spiritual gatherings. They will be “unimaginably glorious”, as the Guardian might have said, but for now we do the best we can.
For me, Ridvan started on the number 27 bus to a hotel where some friends had gathered to celebrate. Manning and Andrea were in charge of the program. There were dozens of roses strewn ‘round the central pillar (a tall coatrack) of a flowing white tent (curtains, I think, anchored by chairs). We sang. Children prayed. “Mirza Asad’u’llah” told his eye-witness story from a century and a half ago, in the voice of a gentle, blonde and blue-eyed American daddy. Children gaped and wondered. As the sun set, and the first day of Paradise commenced, the food was splendid and the fellowship was better. This was our big Ridvan celebration together, as by the next time we meet, Baha’u’llah will have already mounted that red stallion and begun His triumphant exit from Baghdad, on a day that had been intended to tarnish His reputation and discourage His followers. (Good luck with THAT, powers of the earth!)
Ridvan is 150 years old this year. For us, it has so far included study circles and a devotional gathering; at the latter, since we live in China and we can eat strawberries in April, we did as we fashioned a gorgeous bouquet of roses, home-made from wire and ribbon and crepe paper. (Chopsticks, you may wish to know, are indispensable to the proper curving of each petal.) That’s not the only distinctive thing about Ridvan in China of course.
Here’s the thing that has always fascinated me about this whole festival. Baha’is kick off their biggest annual wing-ding, in most places in the world, by holding their local (and later their national) Baha’i elections. Oh, there is feasting, song and dance and drama and generally boat-loads of roses and other beauties, but a sacred kind of voting is typically how it all begins. As a young Baha’i, this was one of my first clues that this new community I was lurking on the edges of was organized a little differently than others. We are learning to love the electoral process, as well as the institutions themselves. Before I came to China, I genuinely looked forward to this process every year, because it is one that induces hope, requires prayer, deepens friendships and forms the basis of, as the Universal House of Justice termed it recently, “a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society”. Even the way we celebratecontributes to this!
Back home in Ottawa, Canada, and likely where you live – though not, we remember, in the land where the Faith was born – they gathered to select the nine members of the Spiritual Assembly. There were no campaign slogans, placards, or nominations, no multi-million-dollar campaign warchests or vicious attack ads, for heaven’s sake. Just this, among many other calls to an electoral process that is oddly simple but incredibly profound:
“Consider, without the least trace of passion and prejudice, and irrespective of any material consideration, the names of only those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.”
So they did. And so the process begins, and so it evolves and specializes and builds its capacity – and ours. And isn’t that better than a golf holiday?
“In the rose garden of changeless splendour” – and in my home and adopted towns, and yours, too – “a flower hath begun to bloom, compared to which every other flower is but a thorn, and before the brightness of whose glory the very essence of beauty must pale and wither…”
The best of the season to you, wherever and however you honour it.
James Howden is an educator, writer and coach who lives in Ottawa, Canada with his wife and the youngest of his four sons. He has been searching for the Baha’i way since his teens. You can read more on his blog: www.JamesHowden.com.