UK artist Banksy has created a new piece for Christmas. Titled “Scar of Bethlehem”, it is a conventional nativity scene repositioned against a section of Israel’s huge concrete West Bank Wall with the Christmas star replaced by a shell hole. It’s on display in his West Bank hotel.
It’s a feat to come up with something both new and true to say about Christmas, but Banksy has succeeded. Because stars and scars belong at the heart of the story of Jesus – and they are powerful reminders at this time of year of what it means to follow Jesus today.
First, the star. Matthew chapter 2 tells the story of the wise men from the East who followed a star that led them to the place of Jesus’ birth. Cut to the conclusion of the gospel story (John chapter 20) where Thomas, one of the disciples, cannot believe the rumour that Jesus has been raised from death. Cue the appearance of Jesus, who displays some very intimate proof of his identity and physical reality: the crucifixion scars in his hands and side.
The star, although mentioned only in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, has become one of the most used visuals of Christmas. Perhaps because stars are one of the few elements of the nativity story that also translate into a purely secular context. And they’re pretty. In contrast, while Jesus’ scars are only mentioned in John’s take on the first Easter, the Crucifixion which gives rise to them is described in all four gospels. Yet scars are way down the list when it comes to Easter imagery. I suggest we’ve got the emphasis the wrong way around.
Consider this: the wise men understood that the star was a sign a new king had been born. But what sort of king? The wise men didn’t know: they had to ask king Herod of Jerusalem, which caused all sorts of problems. But no-one could really know what kind of king Jesus was until the end of the story: it’s the scars that tell us what sort of king. A king who leads by serving, who is utterly unafraid of the worst that the world system can threaten him with, and who combats violence with forgiveness and love.
So it’s the scars that throw light on the star, just as for Christians down the centuries, is Jesus’ death and resurrection has that made his birth worth celebrating.
But sometimes it seems like the hope and new life that Jesus offers has faded like that star. The birth (and death) of a promised Prince of Peace seems overshadowed by 2,000 years of oppression, destruction and hate. Christmas 2019 is headlined by fires and drought, political lies and corporate greed, climate refugees and food-banks, wars and domestic violence. The scars Banksy captures so well in his artwork.
How can we celebrate the story of Jesus against this background? Do we close our eyes to the suffering and injustice around us and retreat into a bubble of carol singing and happy families? Or do we decide that finally, finally, things have become to dark to decorate with tinsel, too cracked to paper over with giftwrap?
Or can we let the scars throw light on the star?
Following Jesus does not mean ignoring the pain and violence of the world. Nor does it mean joyless, rule-bound do-gooding. It means being part of a different kingdom, where violence may be real but is never allowed to have the last word.