This was originally a section in this post from January, but I wanted to highlight the point in honor of St. Joseph’s day:
When people encounter angels or the glorified Christ, they often are depicted as experiencing a particular kind of fear. For example, Mark describes St. Peter’s reaction to the Transfiguration by saying “he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid” (Mark 9:6). And the Apostles’ reaction to the Resurrection: “they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). C.S. Lewis uses the term “Numinous” to describe this sort of awe-filled fear:
Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a mighty spirit in the room,” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words “Under it my genius is rebuked.” This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.
The glorified Jesus and the angels respond to this by telling people not to be afraid. So, for example, the angels at the Empty Tomb begin their proclamation of Easter by telling the women, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:5). Jesus begins the exact same way in Matthew 28:10.
Gabriel says it when he appears to Zechariah in Luke 1:13, and (after saluting her as “full of grace”) says it to Mary in Luke 1:30. The angels say when they appear to the shepherds in Luke 2:10. Jesus says it when He appears to St. Paul in a vision (Acts 18:9), as does the angel in Acts 27:24. That’s the general pattern. But there’s a fascinating partial-exception. When the angel appears to St. Joseph in a dream, he says (Matthew 1:20-21), “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
You might expect the angel to calm St. Joseph’s numinous fear towards being in the presence of an angel of the Lord. But Joseph’s numinous fear is towards…. having Mary as a wife. I’d suggest that there’s something of a parallel between this and Luke 5, when Peter catches a glimpse of Who Jesus Is, and is suddenly terrified (Luke 5:8-10):
But when Simon Peter saw it [the miraculous catch of fish], he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zeb′edee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.”
St. Peter wanted to send Jesus away, because Peter was aware of his own unworthiness. That, not suspicion of adultery, seems to be why Joseph wanted to send Mary away. As a good Jew, Joseph would have known that a Virgin birth was possible (Isaiah 7:14). What we’re seeing isn’t mistrust of Mary, but a holy fear, like that of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6:6: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Joseph wants to send her away because he knows he’s sinful, and thus, he’s not worthy of being married to the Mother of God, and it’s that fear that the angel comforts.