The Most Great Festival is definitely not a festival in the way that many people understand ‘festival’, a time for merry making and fun. The origin of the word ‘festival’ it would seem is ‘holy day’. As the centuries rolled by the only chance most poor and dispossessed communities had for a happy, restful ‘get-together’ was a holy day. Thus, after a while the word ‘festival’ became more associated with rare, fun focussed days off work, including as much communal eating as prayers and thus, ‘feast’ was born with all its connotations.
The three holy days of the Festival of Ridvan observe the time Baha’u’llah announced His mission openly for the first time. Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah’s revelation heralded fulfilling the prophecy contained in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘on earth, as it is in heaven’. That cannot come about without organisation and, hence, Baha’u’llah’s ‘World Order’, ‘the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed.’ (Gleanings LXX) It is so great it has upset the equilibrium of the world and revolutionised the ordered life of mankind. In fact, as a system it is not only new but also ‘wondrous’. It, and it alone, will enable the earth to become more like heaven, because, without order, well-meaning efforts will be uncoordinated, unsustainable and soon dissipated.
Baha’is are conscious of a more practical focus in understanding spirituality, including, for example, work in a spirit of selfless service is worship, the greatest of all pilgrimages is to a sorrow laden heart, the purpose of our lives is to acquire virtues and elections and having a voice are central to a truly spiritual society. None of that can happen affectively and be of benefit to the whole world in the long term unless there is a functioning world order, called by Shoghi Effendi the ‘shell that shields and enshrines so precious a gem’. (Dispensation of Baha’u’llah p68)
At the end of the 18th Century and throughout the 19th Century two concurrent but inter-woven sequence of events took place. The Shaykhi movement began, culminating in the Declaration of the Báb in 1844 and leading to the Declaration of Bahá’u’lláh in 1863, the Most Great Festival. Prior to His declaration, in the ten years from His experience in the Siyah Chal and His declaration in Baghdad, Baha’u’llah revealed four major works, The Kitáb-i-Iqán, The Seven Valleys, the Four Valleys and the Hidden Words. The Kitáb-i-Iqán introduced the concept of progressive revelation, The Seven Valleys and Four Valleys gave insight to the nature of the soul and its journey and the Hidden Words encapsulated all religious truth. In Baha’u’llah’s own words ‘We have taken the inner essence thereof and clothed it in the garment of brevity, as a token of grace unto the righteous…’ (Preamble to Part 1 from the Arabic)
Baha’u’llah made it clear His revelation was more about action than thoughts and debates. In the Hidden Words He states, ‘Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.’ (Hidden Words Persian No 5) And at the end of the Hidden Words He affirms, ‘Let it now be seen what your endeavors in the path of detachment will reveal. (Hidden Words final statement)
Concurrent with this revelation was the ‘industrial revolution’. Within that certain ‘endeavors’ and ‘deeds’ were taking place that laid the foundation for the freedoms, justice and equality enjoyed in the free world today. Before the industrial revolution society was clearly delineated between hereditary rulers, kings and their courts, priests, merchants, craftsmen and landless and defenseless peasants at the mercy of their masters. Other than peasants all strata enjoyed certain rights and protection but did not move between the strata. Peasants were scattered across rural settings and had little chance to band together and demand justice and rare attempts resulted in draconian punishments including eviction and even transportation to Australia. However, the coming of factories meant that large numbers of the poor and dispossessed began to be assembled in one place where they could discuss their grievances and eventually realize that if they threatened to withdraw their labour in unity their masters had to listen to them.
Thus, concurrent with Baha’u’llah’s revelation the struggle in factories ultimately led to consideration of all people’s rights, including the poor and in particular women and children. Events in the world today demonstrate that this hard won justice, equality and respect for all is vulnerable and constantly under threat due to overriding economic considerations. Thus, although the Baha’i Faith did not introduce justice, equality and respect for all it will contribute significantly to its development, injecting much needed spirituality, enable their sustainability and consolidating them in the shadow of an established, fully functioning and truly global Baha’i administration.
On 5th March 1922, only months after the passing of Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi, newly appointed as Guardian of the Baha’i Faith wrote a letter to those he addressed as ‘Fellow-workers in the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh’. In this love filled letter, which he signs, ‘Your brother and co-worker’ he calls the current time an ‘Hour of Transition’ which may refer to the passing of Abdul Baha and his assuming the Guardianship, or it could more widely refer to the beginning of the administrative order. In the final paragraph he points out that the ‘time is ripe’ for Baha’is to work and act harmoniously, united, cooperatively and efficiently and the effect of such endeavour will, ‘transcend every other achievement of the past’. (Unfolding Destiny p16)
The content of this letter and subsequent letters advising on the formation of the administrative order is now familiar to us; how Baha’i Administration should operate and those involved should act. He also explains its role in protecting the Faith from external and internal disruption and reiterates Abdu’l-Baha’s recommendations made to the embryonic spiritual assembly formed in Chicago under His encouragement and guidance.
Within the letter is the remarkable story of Abdu’l-Baha asking Shaykh Faraj to translate the Ishráqát (Effulgences) into Arabic. Even though Abdul Baha made corrections to the translation in his own handwriting, he instructed the Shaykh to get the approval of the nascent assembly in Cairo before publishing it. In Abdul Baha’s words, ‘so that things may be arranged in an orderly manner’ (ibid), demonstrating by example that, even during His ministry, authority within the Baha’i Faith lay in elected assemblies.
Ridvan, then, is indeed the Most Great Festival. The time when, by voting or supporting the process, Baha’is are fulfilling Baha’u’llah’s wish in the Most Holy Book, ‘whereby shall gather Counsellors to the number of Baha who will be guardians for all that dwell on earth’ (Kitab-i-Aqdas No 30) and who choose for themselves and their trust what is ‘meet and seemly’. At Ridvan, therefore, Baha’is are eligible to be effective participants in events that may; ‘transcend every other achievement of the past’. What a privilege!