On this day in 1872, President Ulysses Grant signed the law establishing Yellowstone National Park in what is now Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. With this action, for the first time, the United States government set apart a large wild space, and declared it sacred. We declared that this beautiful place would not be seen as merely something to be used—that we wouldn’t look at the forests and geysers, and start calculating how much value we could extract for them on the open market, but would instead declare the value of these things merely in their beauty and existence. In setting aside Yellowstone, we listened to “a voice crying out from the wilderness”—and acted, placing it upon an altar of preservation, and we later followed that with other great wonders, such as Yosemite, the Painted Desert, Biscayne, and Acadia. We responded to the truth that some places had enough value solely in feeding the spirit. This was a somewhat surprisingly foresighted act by a nation which was at the same time setting out on its rapid and sometimes heedless race toward industrialization, a race that threatened other natural wonders such as this. Yellowstone and her sisters are sanctuaries made by God— and on March 1, 1872, we declared that we recognized that they needed to be preserved and set apart by humanity as a deliberate act of will and honor.
In the course of my time as a teacher of American history, one of the words that the students and I would discuss was the word “sacrifice.” Usually one of the first meanings that came to mind was “a ritual in which something dies in order to appease a deity.” That’s the meaning we often think of when we see this word used in the earliest contexts in the Bible. Sacrifices were often performed to seal covenants or to remind those involved later of the covenant promises that they had previously made —a topic that will come up frequently in our readings during this year’s Lenten lectionary selections. Another meaning of that word that commonly comes to mind, often almost at the same time, is “something that one gives up.” Coincidentally, this meaning is the one that we connect to the season of Lent, seemingly as a default response. “What are you going to give up?” we ask each other. Yet there is another meaning, the one that was alluded to in the first paragraph, that I like to hold on to when thinking about “sacrifice.”
In the etymology of the word, “sacr” means “holy, set apart,” and “ify” means “to do or make.” Thus, at its basic, building-block level, a sacrifice is something that makes us holy. It is also something that is set apart from the common world, and held up as different in a special way. That is the meaning of the word when we talk of the Eucharist as “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” What if we looked at the season of Lent less as a time to give up things (of which we are usually only mildly fond anyway), and more as a time in which we are called to set ourselves and our view of time apart? What if we looked upon Lent not as a time of denial or appeasement, but instead as a joyful time to try to make ourselves holy and to seek to please God?
In looking at Lent in this way, we also have to acknowledge that we are not always perfect in our attempt to set ourselves apart—far from it! We were not always perfect in our attempts to preserve beautiful places. Many other beautiful places disappeared before the approaching wave of industry and modernization. The Arkansas River, which is wild and exultant in its power near the place of its birth in Colorado, has been dammed and channeled so many times by the time it reaches my hometown of Tulsa that it is, in most spots, a sand-choked, muddy trickle in all but the wettest season. Even within Yosemite in California, we at times faltered in our resolve to preserve its wild, sacred beauty: the legendarily lovely Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded to create a reservoir to slake the thirst of rapidly expanding cities far to its west. Yet, with Yellowstone, we began, for the first time in world history, a counter-cultural drive to stop our heedless rush to remake creation in our image, and instead, we sought to both preserve and provide access to a wild and beautiful place. In so doing, we were, in a way, perhaps hoping that this preservation and protection of Yellowstone’s rivers, geysers, and varied terrain would make US holy. That’s what a true sacrifice is: something that makes us holy. Something that sets us apart, and deliberately places us upon a different path.
One of the objectives of observing Lent is to look again at how we promise to set ourselves apart in the baptismal covenant that we rededicate ourselves to periodically, and to examine how we can improve our adherence to those promises. As we begin Lent, some of us may have recited The Great Litany. Others of us may have prayed the Litany of Repentance in the Ash Wednesday liturgy itself. Both of these beautiful prayers serve to remind us both of the pitfalls and sins we need to avoid, but also of the ways in which we are dependent upon God. They also remind us that, as Christians, we have promised to set ourselves aside, to set our very selves apart, in order to be a holy people, a priestly people, sacrificed and sanctified and made holy by God and by our commitment to God.
Lent can perform the same function in a different way—it is not a place, it is a period of time. It is a period of time—40 short days, some of the shortest of the year, usually—in which we remember the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, himself being tempted, as we read in last Saturday’s gospel reading from Mark 1:9-15. It is a time when we ourselves may recognize that we need a time in the wilderness—a time to strip away all the layers of daily concerns that often serve to separate us or distract us from the call we receive as Christians to reorient our lives in a Godward direction. On this day in 1872, we recognized that we all need time in the wilderness, to set ourselves apart. May Lent be such a time, a time not just of giving up some things, but more importantly a time to hallow and consecrate ourselves anew to God.
Image: photo of Yosemite Park by author
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She attends Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, in the Diocese of Missouri, and tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.