Shortly before his death in 2002, renowned paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was asked what he would write to an extraterrestrial if given the opportunity. He replied that he’d start off by asking if his alien pen-pal was made up of DNA or something else. “And the other thing,” Gould continued,

I will give to you the B Minor Mass [by Johann Sebastian Bach], because that’s the best thing we’ve ever done. But I’d like to know if you’ve ever done anything that beautiful, and if so, what was it, and share it with us.

If an agnostic can hail an arrangement of the Lutheran mass as humanity’s supreme cultural achievement, it is richer still for those who believe that Jesus Christ is, in the words of the “Agnus Dei” prayer concluding the mass, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” What Gould recognized as a unique aesthetic experience is, for the Christian, a glimpse of the Lord who is “beautiful and glorious” (Isa 4:2) beyond our conception. 

Such a glimpse is spiritually life-giving. My last semester in college was a personally trying time on several fronts, but it also introduced me to the work of the contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen. During their annual Christmas concert, the college choir performed a rendition of Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” which, incidentally, gets my vote if we were only able to send a single track to the aliens. When I needed it the most, “O Magnum Mysterium” brought back a long-forgotten sense of awe at the “great mystery” of the transcendent Creator who robed himself in human flesh. 

Around that same time period I discovered Luther’s theology of the cross as expressed in his Heidelberg Disputation (1518), which also turned out to be one of the most important developments in my own spiritual life over the last decade. Luther’s insight is that the cross of Christ is not only the means by which God saves the world, but it also constitutes the paradigm for how God works in the world and in our own lives. This means that God is most active in our suffering, failures, and, in general, everything we don’t think of when we think of the words “beautiful” and “glorious.” Luther goes so far as to say that “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.” Indeed, those “theologians” who look for him elsewhere should turn in their union cards (see thesis 19 of the Disputation). 

On the face of it, this seems pretty hard to square with the Christian’s experience of God’s glory on display in the Mass in B Minor, or the Sistine Chapel, or the Horsehead Nebula, or one’s own daughter. It’s also pretty hard to square with multitudes of passages in scripture, in which God shows up in instantly recognizable power and glory. Ask the Egyptians in Pharaoh’s army, or Isaiah in the Lord’s throne room. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” says the psalmist (19:1), and likewise the Apostle Paul claims that God’s existence and majesty are “clearly perceived” in creation (Rom 1:20). 

But Luther, before all else a professional biblical scholar, was intimately familiar with these texts and many others like them. Other sections of the Heidelberg Disputation provide vital context to the “God can only be found” statement. In his proof for thesis 20 of the Disputation, Luther acknowledges that God can be known apart from the cross — he just denies that such knowledge in any way benefits the knower: “Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the shame and humility of the cross.” 

In other words, it’s dangerous to try and relate to God as beautiful, majestic, and glorious before you relate to him as crucified. It’s dangerous because there is no reason to suppose that a majestic God would be a friend to sinners such as us. The ancients (quite reasonably) imagined that their gods loved only the noble, well-born, and pious; this is the exact opposite of good news for those of us who don’t measure up. 

The other danger is one of expectations. If our primary category for God is that of glory (as that term is commonly understood), then we’ll expect God to manifest himself in our lives primarily in glorious ways. That is, we’ll expect regular displays of (what we think of as) victory, strength, beauty, and power. This will likely lead either to deep disappointment or, worse still, an uncritical interpretation of success as a sign of God’s favor. 

To properly recognize God’s work in our lives is to recognize that he prefers to deal in what is apparently weak and foolish. So he works through our suffering, sickness, boredom, and mediocrity. He builds things important to himself from our worst failures. He works through the Lamb being led to the slaughter, accompanied not by Bach’s “Agnus Dei” but by the jeers and curses of his enemies. 

When we learn to recognize this God, then we can also learn to “recognize God in his glory and majesty” in a way that actually does us good. If we start with glory, the cross will, in one form or another, take on secondary importance in our thinking and feeling about God. If we start with the cross, then our understanding of God’s glory will grow deeper, richer, more complex, and, in the end, more glorious. 

After all, any old god can do amazing things and promise his followers safety and power. Only the God whom Bach strove to glorify bears scars on his hands; and he does his most amazing work when his followers experience the opposite of safety and power. Through prayer and scripture (and sometimes music, art, nature, other people …) we approach the eternal Source of all goodness, beauty and truth — but we approach him first as our crucified Savior.