It is the standard angelic greeting: Do not be afraid. The mighty messengers of God, because they are so much more powerful than we are, seek to ease our understandable fear of them. But in the annunciation to Saint Joseph, the angel’s greeting is somewhat different (Mt 1:18-24). In this case, the angel seeks to ease not fear of him, but of Joseph’s own appointed task as son of David, spouse of the Virgin, and father to Jesus. In other words, not so much Do not be afraid of me, but Do not be afraid of your calling. Or in other words, “Do be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.”
Joseph is not frightened of Mary or of what may result from his taking her into his home. Rather, he has a reverential fear. It has been compared to that of Isaiah who, when he finds himself before the Lord, becomes painfully aware of his own unworthiness and cries out, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is 6:5). Or again, Joseph’s fear has been likened to that of Saint Peter who, after the miraculous catch of fish, falls at the knees of Jesus and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Lk 5:8)
Of course, the common interpretation is that Joseph’s hesitation and fear come from his discovery of Mary’s pregnancy. It would appear that she had been unfaithful, so he seeks to extricate himself from the marriage. But if it were the case that Joseph doubted her fidelity, then the angel would have to ease his anger, not his fear. There is another interpretation, however, that of Origen, Saint Jerome, and Saint Bernard among others. It is that Joseph had no doubt about Mary’s purity and fidelity. So, without doubting her virginity he now encounters her also as a mother. He beholds the virgin mother.
As a devout Jew, Joseph knew the messianic sign prophesied by Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” (Is 7:14) Now, seeing Mary as both virgin and mother, he stands before the fulfillment of that prophecy. He feels his own unworthiness and holy fear overcomes him. Like Isaiah and Peter before him, he seeks to excuse himself from the scene. The angel comes to keep him from allowing that laudable reverence to keep him from his appointed task. Do not be afraid . . . do not allow your holy fear to keep you from your vocation.
So we should understand Joseph not as a weak man seeking a way out, but as a “just man” awed by the miracle wrought in his beloved and aware of his own unworthiness. Indeed, this interpretation should help advance the devotion to Joseph so necessary for our times.
Consider the two qualities of our Lady that evoke such reverence from Joseph: virginity and motherhood. These are of course two things that our culture detests and assaults. Virginity is regarded either as a punch line or as something to be conquered. Nowhere in our culture do we see it as something to be valued, preserved, and given purely. As for motherhood, we only value it on our own terms. Which is to say that we do not value it at all. We reject it when inconvenient and demand it when we want. We value what it can bring us. Otherwise, it is something to be avoided by contraception or abortion.
Joseph provides a salutary example of what a man should be and do. He reveres what he finds in Mary. He does not scorn her purity or resent her motherhood. Indeed, he sees these qualities in her as something promising more. They call out the best from him.
Joseph also has something to teach us about leadership (of particular importance, given recent failures in the Church). Joseph is to be the head of the Holy Family, exercising authority over Jesus and Mary. Reverence – that fear of the Lord and of what God has wrought – is the condition and necessary foundation for this lofty post. Similarly, Isaiah does not become a prophet (indeed, the prophet, as he is traditionally called) until he sees himself as unworthy of it. Peter, before being raised to the headship of the Twelve, must first fall on his knees in reverence.
The man who lacks reverence will inevitably abuse his power. Without that proper fear of the Lord, he will use it for his own advancement or neglect the exercise of it at all. So the Bride of Christ deserves to have as her sacred ministers, as those entrusted with our Lord Himself, men like Joseph, conscious of their unworthiness and able to humble themselves before His mysteries.
*Image: Joseph’s Dream by Gerard Seghers, c. 1630 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]