Among the many prayers that are said during The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage in the Episcopal tradition, this one came to mind as I read the familiar story of the Annunciation: “Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.” The word “perplex” is not one that gets a lot of use these days, and it is a word for which very few of us have a working definition. It means something deeper than confusion. To be perplexed is to be totally knocked off kilter by something; to be completely baffled, mystified, and thrown off balance.
In the marriage rite, this word makes sense because life will inevitably throw us off balance. When entering into a covenant to share life with another human being, it must be assumed that there will be moments when one or the other or both of you will find yourself in a state of perplexity, needing desperately someone to come alongside and help you find your footing. It might come in the doctor’s office, the boardroom, or by way of a phone call in the middle of the night, but it seems likely that for everyone, a moment of perplexity will come. So, we pray that the couple might serve the other in those moments as a counselor, one who will offer wisdom beyond the immediate circumstances of life, in order to rebuild the foundations that are crumbling.
While I think that role of counselor is important, and I get that the author of this prayer needed comfort for the antithesis of sorrow, I really think the best role any of us can take on during someone else’s perplexing time is that of comforter, and I think the angel Gabriel is the archetype of a comforter in perplexity. The Greek word translated as “perplexed” carries within it even deeper meanings of fear and upset. Mary wasn’t just confused by the reality of an angel standing in her room telling her that she is favored and that the Lord is with her, but she is downright scared, anxious, confused, and totally taken aback.
Rather than working to counsel Mary by offering her suggestions as to how she might overcome her state of perplexity, Gabriel takes on the mantel of comforter with the words that angels always bring to those to whom they are made manifest, “Don’t be afraid.” He then calls her by name, an uncommon occurrence for women in the Scriptures. There is something reassuring about hearing one’s name be said aloud. In calling her Mary, Gabriel assures this young bride-to-be that she is seen and valued. Even as she feels the ground crumbling around her, Gabriel assured Mary that her core identity is secure. She is, and will always be, even as she will soon become the Theotokos. Gabriel then reiterates her state of blessedness, being favored by God. Literally, Gabriel says that she has been found in the grace of God.
Life can be perplexing at times. It is good to have close companions who can serve as a source of God’s comfort in those moments, and it is a holy assignment to be asked to be a comforter in perplexity.