I seem to remember a nature programme in which a crab was overcome by a group of army ants and summarily taken to pieces from the inside out. My own squeamish nature prevented me from watching the whole ghastly spectacle, though, as a small boy I'd have probably watched this with some fascination. I wondered to myself, why didn't the makers of the film help the poor crab? What a horrible way to die!
Two things struck me. First, why should the camera person help the crab? Wouldn't that deprive the ants of a meal, starving their young to death? Whose life is more important, and who gets to make that decision? My emotions were with the crab because I was imagining the excruciating pain it must have been in and I wanted that pain to end. Yet somehow that pain was necessary for the ecosystem. There is no Good or Evil here, just a fight for survival. The army ant is doing exactly what the crab is doing - trying to stay alive. As Professor Richard Dawkins would say, there is nothing here apart from blind, pitiless indifference.
Second, why was the programme made in the first place? I assume that the makers were not actually interfering in the situation. If that's the case, then the crab would have met its end, cameras or no cameras. The point of the programme was to educate, to show us what Nature is like, how it works, how the animals behave. We learn about our world, its variety and colour, of the brilliant and beautiful creatures interacting and contributing to a complex ecosystem. So too, we must learn about Death in its many and varied forms. The beautiful geometry of the spider's web exists only for the painful paralysis, suffocation and digestion of the fly. We cannot have one without the other.
How can a Loving God create a world in which such horrible things happen, first to humans who might deserve it, second to beasts which don't. Does God really have to pit animal against animal in such a horrible manner?
As we walk into Holy Week with our Master riding ahead on an ass, we will be presented with the same question, "Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?" "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Where has all the love gone? Why is all brutality and pain?
The fact that Christ is our teacher does remind us that our present state is one of deep, meanugful learning to be human, of feeling our way through life to a future which is neither light or dark but bears only that dread epithet: UNKNOWN. Our Lord completes the lessons taught by the Law and the Prophets: that God exists and the meaning of our lives is to be found in our relationship with Him forged by fidelity and recognition of His Holiness. Our Lord bids us be holy for God is holy.
We know that holiness is a state of separation from that which is not-God. God stands apart because He is Creator. He calls Israel to stand apart as an instrument of His blessing for all peoples. That vocation has fallen to Christians. We are to be instruments of God's blessing on this world. If we are to be holy - separated - then we must know what we are to be separated from. True freedom of will means that we have to be exposed to what is evil as well as what is good. True freedom means we have to know the brutality of mindlessness, of Nature's indifference to our lives and happiness in order to begin to know that we are alive and that we can be happy.
And we have to know our own separation from God. This is no theoretical separation, but an actual separation of creatures given freedom yet who have wilfully claimed independence from God and have fallen far into a darkness from which only God can rescue us. This is Holy Week - the week in which God has to show us that our suffering in this life is recognised and even given a value. He does this for the express purpose of reconciling the paradox of our free-will with His Divine authority, and so that we might be freed from the Hell-bound consequences of our decision to be separated from God. We could have the same existence as the ant and the crab by denying God, and He would allow this because of His love for us and the scandalous respect that He has for His Creatures.
What of the crab and the ant, living pitiless and brutal existence devouring each other oblivious to the other's pain? This is Hell, even for creatures that don't appear to be able to cry out to God. Yet even their suffering is noted. Even their tears are put into His bottle. We are told that there will be new skies and a new earth. All these former things will pass away.
Holy Week is horrible as we watch one man's life torn to pieces. This is reality in its brutality, yet through this we find ourselves aware of God in His Death and, in this death, we can a life that makes all suffering not only worthwhile, but a badge of honour!
Let us travel with Our Lord Jesus, not as viewers of His Passion, nor just as participants remembering that we are responsible for His pain, but as bearers of that pain and humanity which He decided to share with us. Let us also remember that as we watch one another suffer, trying but failing to prevent that suffering through acts of compassion, Christ is there with us completing that suffering into its Eternal significance and the infinite joy associated with it.
I wish all my readers a blessed Holy Week filled with God's presence, and offer my prayers to Him for all those in suffering and need, begging for their joy to be found and completed.