Did you ever arrive at church only to find that worship had started without you. It's one of those times we tend to be glad if people are standing. Standing makes it easier to slip into a service in progress. Fortunately, church members are often so thoughtful of latecomers, they graciously leave the very best seats in the sanctuary, the ones right up front, for us.
And, we are not as sure of things if the service has already started. What did we miss? Have they sung one song already? Two? Five? "Next time I'll be here before worship begins."
That, however, would require getting up early. Really early. Like before we were born early. Before the church itself was born. Before the stars were thrown hurled across the unimaginable immensity of time and space. That kind of early. Worship never begins with us.
All we ever do is join worship that is already in progress.
In the Latin liturgical tradition, the truth is affirmed as the church moves into singing the Thrice Holy, the "Sanctus! Sanctus! Sanctus!" Just before singing, the celebrant announces "Et ìdeo cum Angelis" ("And so we join the angels"). Our worship is combined into the ongoing eternal worship of God we glimpse in the seraphim of Isaiah 6 and the thundering praises of Revelation 3 and 4. It neither begins with our first note nor ends with our last breath.
It is a humbling realization. When we talk of giving excellence in worship, we begin to realize how absurd such a goal really is. The best efforts of our most talented are surely painfully inadequate when heard along with angelic choirs that have been practicing their praise longer than the cosmos has been here to hear it.
In the Eastern tradition, this emphasis of joining with the angels includes the truth that we are also joining the church. But not simply our one congregation. The whole church. Spreading out across the globe in myriads of languages and dialects we cannot begin to list. But the whole church means more than that. It means the worship of those whose brief sojourn here is past and who gather around the throne. The dead in Christ whose ongoing worship both joins and amplifies ours before the the throne. And, with an almost mystical awareness that time stretches both forward and backward, the worship of those who will follow are also, in some sense, sharing in our worship now, just as we are sharing in the worship of those who have come before us.
So, face it. We'll never be able to make it to church before worship begins.
Our arrival does not start it. Our departure will not stop it.
It had been going on for long ages when the world began.
And yet, it will only be getting warmed up when the fabric of this present age is torn asunder and replaced..
Glory be to the Father. And to the Son. And to the Holy Spirit.
As in the beginning. Now is. And ever shall be.
World without end.