It's curious how we have found so many ways to get around this saying of Jesus. One hierarch who otherwise declares himself the bridge-builder and the vicar of Christ on earth, humbly adds the epithet servant of the servants of God to the other titles by which he is known, and though protocol demands he be referred to as ‘his Holiness,’ we are advised that this form of address pertains not to him personally, but to what Christ has made him. That may be so; I don't know. But I ask myself, how does this differ from referring to the Queen as ‘her Majesty’?
Like all other human societies, the Church organizes itself in tiers according to rules of order. Is this not to be avoided? After all, even Christ had His inner ring of disciples, Peter, James and John, and even there we find an ambition for preeminence among its members which gave Him occasion to speak the words cited above, ‘anyone who wants to be great…’
Though Holy Church has institutions like the offices of bishop, presbyter and deacon, and has even added more classifications to these simple New Testament ones, the fact remains that within her we find strange inversions happening, even from the earliest times, that prove the saying of Jesus fulfilled and write a spiritual history of mankind that remains almost impossible of documentation.
In the ancient Church, we have figures like elders Barsanouphios and John in Gaza, simple men who from their desert cells guided countless lives both during their time and up to the present day. Bishops even feared them for their God-bestowed authority, and heeded their instructions, yet they considered themselves the worst of sinners.
In the film Ostrov, the simple, half-mad Fr Anatoly, after burning his abbot's best boots, nearly suffocating him in a smoke-filled boiler room, and then casting his precious down-filled comforter into the sea, sits side by side with him, both of them covered with soot and smoke, and talks to himself or them both, complaining that God has made him the leader of the monastery, and he simply can't understand why, since of all men he is the most sinful. You can tell that he's not just saying this out of humility; he really believes it. This is Fr Anatoly speaking, now, not the abbot. The abbot just sits there beside him silently and with a look of abject relief, thanking God for delivering him, at the hands of this madman, from his earthly crutches.
It is strange, too, how our perceptions of others can be so different, one person viewing another as a great saint, another criticizing him harshly. As C. S. Lewis writes, ‘What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.’ I have known bishops who, I think, were great saints and men of God, yet I still hear them being traduced even after they have reposed, and being called bad men. Conversely, I am sure there are others whom I blame and others praise. So much for our private judgments. Why judge at all? But as Jesus says, ‘Wisdom is vindicated by all her children’ (Luke 7:35).
Holy Church is both the most merciful refuge for the afflicted and at the same time the most dangerous place for souls who still seek the world. Her structures and order can both relieve the afflicted and afflict the pious. The lowlier you are in spirit, the less you are jolted by the cataracts in the flow of churchly life, whether you are positioned at the top, as a chief shepherd, or just one of the lesser sheep. The stronger is your hold on the control of life, your own or that of others, the greater is your danger, to yourself and to others. A ride over the cataracts might throw you out of the boat, your stiff stance working ironically against you.
Spiritual freedom—ultimately, this is what it all boils down to. As the apostle writes, ‘When Christ freed us, He meant us to remain free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1). All worldly systems of social organization lead to slavery and preserve it among men. Only Christ Jesus, in His divine teaching and holy example, has set us free from this when He turned the world upside down, as His disciples continue to do, for which the world blames them.
These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.