by the Rev. Ruth Beresford and the Rev. David Beresford
The old priest Zechariah and his equally venerable wife Elizabeth were getting on in years. They had no children but lived together as faithful servants of God, living righteous lives in the countryside not far from Jerusalem. One day in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth was to bear a son, John.
The disbelieving priest asked how, since both he and his wife were beyond the age of having children. The angel replied, simply stating that he is God’s messenger. For doubting the message of God, Zechariah is struck dumb until the child is born.
Zechariah returns home to Elizabeth, but is unable to speak to her. Soon she will discover that she is with child. Imagine what strange evenings the old couple must have experienced —Zechariah in his chair unable to say anything, and Elizabeth elderly and pregnant, wondering if Zechariah is even listening to half of what she says.
Six months into her pregnancy, up north near Galilee, Elizabeth’s cousin Mary conceives a child. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary telling her that she will give birth to Jesus, the Son of the Most High. Gabriel tells her that her cousin Elizabeth has also conceived a son. Mary offers a profound acceptance, saying, “Here am I, the servant
of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Following this angelic visit, Mary’s first act is to set off on a long journey to the Judean town where Zechariah and Elizabeth live. When Mary enters the house, she greets Elizabeth, whose child in the womb leaps for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth says: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why should this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord comes
As we mark the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary this May, we see two tasks of Christian life defined in this encounter described by St. Luke. The first is mission.
Mary is doing what Christians have been doing for centuries — going on a mission trip, in her case, to visit a distant relative. When we make a mission trip, we intend to bring Jesus with us, perhaps to those who don’t know him yet. Mary literally carries Jesus with her when she goes. She carries within her the salvation of all nations, all peoples. The Lord may be invisible and unseen, yet through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ presence is revealed to Elizabeth, and she declares the blessedness of her young cousin.
Mary reminds us that mission begins not in delivering a message but in the journey toward another person with Jesus in your heart. Mary’s visitation with Elizabeth and Zechariah reminds us that the gift of Jesus in our lives is a gift to be shared. Her feast day can serve as a reminder that our faithful witness as Christians is a call to mission, journeying toward others with Jesus in our heart so that when they meet us, they see Christ in us.
The second task of the Christian life is ministry. Mary stays three months with Elizabeth. Pregnant with our Lord Jesus, Mary’s first ministry is to be present with Elizabeth for the last months of her untimely and miraculous pregnancy. What a wonderful gift the young girl gives to the older woman. No longer in solitude with the mute Zechariah, Elizabeth has Blessed Mary as her constant companion for these three precious months. Faith is shared in conversations, in the care and support each offers to each offers to the other, being present in one of life’s miraculous moments.
Fast forward to this 21st century life. Early on in our relationship, there was a dinner date. Ruth’s cell phone was constantly in hand as she responded to a never-ending stream of emails and texts. In earnest frustration, David said four words that continue to shape our married life and our ministry. He simply said, “Be present to me.”
How often are we with others but not present to them? We may be distracted by worry and work; attracted by other demands for our attention; or fearful that if we are present, we won’t know what to say or do. Whatever the reason, we can find ourselves in someone’s presence without being present.
The ministry of presence is more than showing up. It’s truly listening; it’s staying attentive in the moment until there is enough safety for true conversation to begin. This is the ministry described in Mary’s visitation.
On her LinkedIn page, Brené Brown writes about a visit she made to Newtown, Connecticut, to speak to the community about brain health and violence prevention, addressing those who had lost children in the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Her purpose was to speak, but in the months that followed, she found herself called to a ministry of presence. One of the fathers died of an apparent suicide. Brown writes, “I feel heartbroken and gutted. But I won’t look away. And I ask that you continue to look pain in the eye. We absolutely need to lean into the joy, laughter, beauty, love, and connection in our lives. As much and as often as we can. And, when called, we need to stand with those in pain. We need to make sure that when we see a heart breaking, we bare our own broken heart and stand together so we know that, even in the midst of struggle, we’re not alone.”
What Brown describes is the ministry of presence, not rushing in to repair or solve, but staying in the moment, vulnerable and open to the experience of the other, simply being present in humility and honesty. This is the example the Blessed Mary gives too. Her feast day can serve as a reminder that our faithful witness as Christians is a call to ministry, being present to others so that they know they are seen and their story is heard — so they know they are not alone. What a treasure that ministry is!
The ministry of presence and the mission of carrying Jesus to others — keep these in mind on May 31 when the Church celebrates the Feast of the Visitation. Keep Mary as a model for ministry and mission. For us, as for her, it really begins when we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The Rev. Ruth Beresford is the rector at Christ Church Christiana Hundred and has been in ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church for more than 25 years. She has two adult children and is married to the Rev. David Beresford. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rev. David Beresford is the rector of the Church of the Holy Redeemer, in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. He was ordained in 2009 in the Church of England and before moving to the United States in late 2015, he served as priest-in-charge at the Church of the Holy Cross, Luton, in the Diocese of St. Albans. He has two adult children and is married to the Rev. Ruth Beresford. email@example.com