Lift each other up, ‘like Elizabeth did with Mary’

Ecumenical delegates to UN Commission on the Status of Women hear from former PC(USA) co-moderator

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), preaches during Tuesday worship for the 65th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. (Screenshot)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — On International Women’s Day, Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri noticed her social media feeds were loaded with memes in celebration, but one stood out:

“On this day, we don’t need flowers. We need justice and equity.”

“I should have taken a screenshot,” Cintrón-Olivieri, co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said Tuesday morning to participants in the 65th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. She was preaching at the daily worship service Ecumenical Women at the UN usually holds in the chapel of the Church Center for the United Nations during the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

Though this year’s commission is virtual, the chapel services are still taking place online, with different delegations leading worship each day. Tuesday was the day for the combined delegations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Presbyterian Women, hosted by the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, to lead the half-hour service. The service was seen by CSW attendees from around the world, including a group from Pakistan, which chimed in on the chat, pointing out that at 8 a.m. Eastern Time, it was already nighttime in their country.

Cintrón-Olivieri preached from Luke 1:39-45, the passage in which Mary visits Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s unborn child, John the Baptist, leaps in Elizabeth’s womb upon hearing Mary’s voice.

“Mary was a very young woman, living in a male-dominated, patriarchal society, poor, with dangers surrounding her and her pregnancy,” Cintrón-Olivieri said. “She must have felt scared, confused and overwhelmed by the circumstances that surrounded her, as well as the enormity of the task of the call that the angel had announced. … After a long trip, Mary arrived at this place, a place that would be sanctuary.

“If I close my eyes, I can imagine the scene. I can see Mary calling out for Elizabeth, and I can see Elizabeth rushing to her, arms open wide and then closed in a warm, strong embrace. And then, engulfed in that embrace, filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth explains loudly … ‘Oh dear one, blessed are you and blessed is this child you carry!’ … Can you picture the scene? The warm welcome, the embrace, the affirmation, the excitement. Mary must have felt it too. Because she burst out in song: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,’ Mary said, ‘and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed.’”

Cintrón-Olivieri acknowledged she took a little poetic license in painting the joyful scene. But it was important to her to make the moment real to participants in the CSW.

“Women in leadership cannot help but think about the similarities between the women in this passage facing their almost impossible calls, and what we might feel as we step into leadership roles, respond to our own calls, and live out our ministries where we are very much still living in a male-dominated, patriarchal world,” Cintrón-Olivieri said.

She went on to detail challenges women around the world face, and even in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) where, she said, “eight out of 10 female teaching elders in this denomination have experienced gender bias in the form of discrimination, sexual harassment, or prejudicial statements.” That was one of several points she mentioned, specific to the church.

“The struggle is real, and tough, and tiring,” Cintrón-Olivieri said. “And because of this, within our own sisterhood and sibling hood, we need to be more intentional than ever in lifting each other up, much like Elizabeth did with Mary, rejoicing with those who achieved their goals and dreams, encouraging, supporting, and empowering.”

Her rousing sermon was followed by Rory Cooney’s hymn “Canticle of Turning,” based on Mary’s joyful song that “the world is about to turn.”

Delegate Naomi McQuiller closed the service with a benediction echoing Cintrón-Olivieri’s sermon, saying, “may we become that place, that sanctuary, for each other and for all of God’s beloved children whose stories we will hear today and whose brave voices we will encounter: A place that is open, welcoming, affirming, and safe … a haven.”

Watch Tuesday’s worship service here.

The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations is one of the PC(USA) Advocacy Offices, which are part of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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