On the 22nd May the world will again start to be circled in celebration. About two hours after sunset, when the new day starts for us, Bahá’ís everywhere will come together to share prayers, readings and music in memory of a very special event. What’s it all about?
In this ordinary room pictured on the left, 166 years ago, an important meeting took place. It began a process that is still unfolding to this day. For Bahá’ís this meeting has a very special meaning, the full significance of which would not be immediately obvious to all those attending a typical Holy Day Celebration. This is a brief attempt to unpack its key significance in the words of the central figures of the Faith.
The Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith opened his description of the event with these words:
May 23, 1844, signalizes the commencement of the most turbulent period of the Heroic Age of the Bahá’í Era, . . . . . No more than a span of nine short years marks the duration of this most spectacular, this most tragic, this most eventful period of the first Bahá’í century. . . . .
The opening scene of the initial act of this great drama was laid in the upper chamber of the modest residence of the son of a mercer of Shiraz, in an obscure corner of that city. The time was the hour before sunset, on the 22nd day of May, 1844. The participants were the Báb, a twenty-five year old siyyid, of pure and holy lineage, and the young Mulla Husayn, the first to believe in Him. Their meeting immediately before that interview seemed to be purely fortuitous. The interview itself was protracted till the hour of dawn.
He quoted the words of Mulla Husayn:
“This Revelation,” Mulla Husayn has . . . testified, “so suddenly and impetuously thrust upon me, came as a thunderbolt which, for a time, seemed to have benumbed my faculties. I was blinded by its dazzling splendor and overwhelmed by its crushing force. Excitement, joy, awe, and wonder stirred the depths of my soul. . . . . .
With this historic Declaration the dawn of an Age that signalizes the consummation of all ages had broken.
Shoghi Effendi: God Passes By, Pages: 3-8
(For a more detailed sense of what happened see this link.)
`Abdu’l-Bahá, in His visit to America in 1912, spoke briefly of the day itself:
It is a blessed day and the dawn of manifestation, for the appearance of the Báb was the early light of the true morn, whereas the manifestation of the Blessed Beauty, Bahá’u'lláh, was the shining forth of the sun. . . . On this day in 1844 the Báb was sent forth heralding and proclaiming the Kingdom of God, announcing the glad tidings of the coming of Bahá’u'lláh and withstanding the opposition of the whole Persian nation.
He then gave a brief outline of the events that followed, detailing the ensuing persecution which was severe and persists, of course, until today in Iran:
Some of the Persians followed Him. For this they suffered the most grievous difficulties and severe ordeals. They withstood the tests with wonderful power and sublime heroism. Thousands were cast into prison, punished, persecuted and martyred. Their homes were pillaged and destroyed, their possessions confiscated. They sacrificed their lives most willingly and remained unshaken in their faith to the very end.
The Báb was subjected to bitter persecution in Shiraz, where He first proclaimed His mission and message. A period of famine afflicted that region, and the Báb journeyed to Isfahan. There the learned men rose against Him in great hostility. He was arrested and sent to Tabriz. From thence He was transferred to Maku and finally imprisoned in the strong castle of Chihriq. Afterward He was martyred in Tabriz.
He holds up the life and sacrifices of the Báb as an example:
We must follow His heavenly example; we must be self-sacrificing and aglow with the fire of the love of God. We must partake of the bounty and grace of the Lord, for the Báb has admonished us to arise in service to the Cause of God, to be absolutely severed from all else save God during the day of the Blessed Perfection, Bahá’u'lláh, to be completely attracted by the love of Bahá’u'lláh, to love all humanity for His sake, to be lenient and merciful to all for Him and to upbuild the oneness of the world of humanity. Therefore, this day, 23 May, is the anniversary of a blessed event.
`Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, Pages: 138-139
So, there are implications in these events, remote though they seem to most of us in both time and place, for how we should conduct ourselves today. The Guardian unravelled some of these possibilities in the following passage.
The moment had now arrived for that undying, that world-vitalizing Spirit that was born in Shiraz, that had been rekindled in Tihran, that had been fanned into flame in Baghdad and Adrianople [i.e. the places to which Bahá'u'lláh was successively exiled], that had been carried to the West, and was now illuminating the fringes of five continents, to incarnate itself in institutions designed to canalize its outspreading energies and stimulate its growth. [My emphasis] The Age that had witnessed the birth and rise of the Faith had now closed. . . . . .
The Formative Period, the Iron Age, of that Dispensation was now beginning, the Age in which the institutions, local, national and international, of the Faith of Bahá’u'lláh were to take shape, develop and become fully consolidated, in anticipation of the third, the last, the Golden Age destined to witness the emergence of a world-embracing Order enshrining the ultimate fruit of God’s latest Revelation to mankind, a fruit whose maturity must signalize the establishment of a world civilization and the formal inauguration of the Kingdom of the Father upon earth as promised by Jesus Christ Himself.
(God Passes By, page 324)
Even such a powerful explanation as this does not convey the full impact of this Revelation on the lives of all Bahá’ís nor explain in terms which are easy for everyone to grasp why the core of the Bahá’í vision applies to everyone, Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í alike.
In 2001 the central body of the Faith wrote a message to all those assembled in Haifa to witness the ceremony that marked the completion of the Terraces that climb above and descend below the Shrine of the Báb. The core paragraphs for our present purpose begin by explaining what the Faith and all our activities within it are for:
Reflection on what the Bahá’í community has accomplished throws into heartbreaking perspective the suffering and deprivation engulfing the great majority of our fellow human beings. It is necessary that it should do so, because the effect is to open our minds and souls to vital implications of the mission Bahá’u’lláh has laid on us. “Know thou of a truth,” He declares, “these great oppressions that have befallen the world are preparing it for the advent of the Most Great Justice.” . . . . In the final analysis, it is this Divine purpose that all our activities are intended to serve, and we will advance this purpose to the degree that we understand what is at stake in the efforts we are making to teach the Faith, to establish and consolidate its institutions, and to intensify the influence it is exerting in the life of society.
They make completely explicit the change in our way of thinking that is required of us:
Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world. We demonstrate this commitment, Shoghi Effendi tells us, by our rectitude of conduct towards others, by the discipline of our own natures, and by our complete freedom from the prejudices that cripple collective action in the society around us and frustrate positive impulses towards change.
(From the 24 May 2001 message from the Universal House of Justice to the Believers Gathered for the Events Marking the Completion of the Projects on Mount Carmel)
So, in short, the Báb surrendered His life to show us the way. Bahá’u'lláh endured roughly 50 years of imprisonment, torture and exile as He explained to us in detail what was required. The rest is up to us.