By: Abuna Jihad Nassif
The picture of a shepherd and his flock is very familiar to us in the Orient. The shepherd is one of us, he is no stranger even if he smells a little of sheep. People even discover that he does not abandon his animals, even in a war-torn Homs.
The shepherd as well as the donkey, dog, staff and especially his flute are a symbol for a peaceful and intact world. His flute is not there to while away the time but to assure his flock that he is still there. Every time, we are astonished that the sheep come to him in the evening and line up in a row to be milked. They know him as their master and are thankful to him. They would not obey any other in the same way. And for his part, the shepherd does not shy away from the sheep’s smell. He smells of sheep himself. When necessary, he takes a sheep in his arms like a mother holds her child. For us outsiders, all the sheep are the same. They are identical except for a few differences. But the shepherd knows each one of the them and knows them by name. On the other hand, they know his voice. In the evening, he stands in front of the stable and lets the sheep in. He notices straight away if one of them is missing.
His U-shaped shepherd’s crook first shows the sheep what direction to go if they stray to the left or right. The shepherd can also use his crook to chase away intruders. And if a sheep falls into a ditch, he can use his crook to get it out. The parable of the Good Shepherd is the ultimate parable about our relationship to Jesus Christ and vice versa. It is a thread running through the entire bible up to the Last Judgement at the end of time. But this image does not remain cheerful, peaceful and idyllic. Thieves and robbers crop up every day.
I live in Homs, a major crossroad in Syria. During the war in Syria, Homs become one of the first disaster areas. Nothing remains from the homely scene of the shepherd and his flock. For over seven years, we’ve had thieves and robbers here, robbers from our midst and robbers who come from afar. Very quietly, even in the name of God, they gorge themselves on our sheep.
I am writing this text in Hamidiyeh which is the destroyed old city centre of Homs. This afternoon, the Syrian national football team will play against Australia to qualify for the World Championships. We’ve put up a huge screen in the destroyed Hamidiyeh-Souk district to view the football game. We are hoping. That’s something the robbers can’t take away from us.
When I came to Homs two years ago, it was very cold. It was just before Christmas 2015. But it was a real gift to celebrate this feast in Hamidiyeh. The simplest things can bring great joy. We were as happy as kids about the very simple Christmas illuminations. With brute force, the war liberated us from all our superfluous Christmas decorations and habits. All of a sudden, there is room for what is essential.
Even now, we have electricity for a maximum of two hours a day. Otherwise everything is pitch black. But at least this blots out the ruins of buildings with their charred and plundered apartments from our sight. It was also rather dark in the Grotto of the Nativity. Sometimes it’s a good thing when there is darkness.
On the other hand, we need to be very careful in the dark. We shouldn’t forget our torches when we go out. Otherwise we may bump into someone, get frightened or we cross a junction without noticing. Suddenly we may have gone much further than we actually intended.
The streets are as good as empty – no people, no cars. Other dangerous things still are pieces of concrete or satellite dishes which may suddenly fall from the ruined roofs of multi-storey buildings. What I haven’t seen yet are dogs and cats which normally run around free in Syria. Even the birds and sparrows have disappeared. Where have all the flowers gone?! It’s also very empty in our Grotto of the Nativity.
I’ve also started a project with support from the United Nations – we install solar lamps in the streets of our district. We have to protect them against thieves and misuse but now we have light again.
In Hamidiyeh there are only five Maronite families left, all childless. On Sundays, some people also come to holy mass from our sister parish in the Armenian quarter. Then there are about 30 or 40 of us. But during the week, there are perhaps only three or four people at mass. None the less, I celebrate holy mass when there are still so few people. At this time, evening supper, which is what we call a Syrian evening, takes on a deeper meaning. We are at war and nobody wants to break his bread. Evening supper is the only sign that we can set against death which is all around us and it is our daily answer to war: we share our bread, our meagre medicine, our worries and fears but also our Christian faith and our hope. And when I look at the faces of the people here, what appears unbearable and impossible for me becomes more bearable and possible. Faces are the place where people meet at the deepest level.
In Homs you cannot look out very far – a mere six metres at the most. Then the plundered, burnt-out empty flats crowd in on you. But we’ve started to restore some of them. We’ve already finished seven of them. Of course, that is only a drop in the ocean. But these drops for us mean a great deal of hope: at least we’ve started! Another drop of hope is our fellow Christians outside Syria who have not forgotten us. Personally, I’m a collector of drops of hope in Homs.
After two years here, I have come to realise that the shepherd was there all the time! He’s with us day and night. “I’m the good shepherd,” said Jesus about himself. He also said, “Only God is truly good.” And he is absolutely right. Jesus is more than a normal shepherd. He is the divine good shepherd. Who should we be afraid of?! We live and have the full abundance of the love of Christ. Nothing can separate us from this.
Abuna Jihad Nassif is pastor of the Maronite congregation in Homs.
This article was originally published in the 4/2017 issue of Schneller Magazine, which can be found here: https://schneller-schulen.ems-online.org/en/#c846.