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The Protoevangelium of Salvation

General Audience — December 17, 1986

In the fourth Eucharistic Prayer (Canon IV) the Church addresses God in the following words: "Father, we proclaim your greatness: all your actions show your wisdom and love. You formed man in your own likeness and set him over the whole world to serve you, his creator, and to rule over all creatures. Even when in disobedience he rejected your friendship you did not abandon him to the power of death...."

In harmony with the truth expressed in this prayer of the Church, we noted in the previous catechesis the complex content of the words of Genesis 3, which contain God's response to the first human sin. That text speaks of the combat against "the powers of evil" in which humanity has been involved from the beginning of its history. At the same time, however, it assures us that God does not abandon man to himself, he does not leave him "in the power of death," reduced to a "slave of sin" (cf. Rom 6:17). Accordingly, God tells the serpent who has tempted the woman: "I will make you enemies of each other; you and the woman, your offspring and her offspring. It will crush your head and you will strike its heel" (Gen 3:15).

These words of Genesis are called the Protoevangelium or the first announcement of the Messiah Redeemer. They reveal God's salvific plan in regard to the human race which after original sin is found in the fallen state which we know. They indicate especially the central event in God's plan of salvation. It is the same event referred to in the fourth Eucharistic Prayer, already quoted, when we turn to God with this profession of faith: "Father, you so loved the world that in the fullness of time you sent your only Son to be our Savior. He was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary, a man like us in all things but sin."

The statement of Genesis 3 is called the "Protoevangelium" because it has received its confirmation and fulfillment only in the revelation of the new covenant which is the Gospel of Christ. In the old covenant this announcement was constantly re-evoked in different ways, in the rites, symbolisms, prayers, prophecies, and in the history of Israel as the "people of God" reaching out toward a messianic goal. But it was always under the veil of the imperfect and provisional faith of the Old Testament. When the announcement will be fulfilled in Christ there will be the full revelation of the messianic and trinitarian content implicit in the monotheism of Israel. The New Testament will then lead to the discovery of the full meaning of the writings of the Old Testament, according to the famous saying of St. Augustine: "In the Old Testament the New lies hidden, and in the New the Old lies open" [1] .

The analysis of the "protoevangelium" informs us, by means of the announcement and promise contained in it, that God has not abandoned the human race to the power of sin and death. He wished to rescue and save it. He did so in his own way, according to the measure of his transcendent holiness, and at the same time according to a self-effacement such as only a God of love could display.

The words of the "protoevangelium" express this saving self-effacement when they announce the struggle ("I will put enmity") between him who represents "the powers of evil" and the other whom Genesis calls "the offspring of the woman." It is a struggle which will end with the victory of Christ! ("He shall bruise your head.") However, this will be the victory bought at the price of the sacrifice of the cross ("and you shall bruise his heel.") The mystery of iniquity is dispelled by the "mystery of mercy." It is precisely the sacrifice of the cross that helps us to penetrate into the essence of sin, enabling us to understand something of its dark mystery. In a particular way St. Paul is our guide when he wrote in the Letter to the Romans: "As by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous" (Rom 5:18). "One man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men" (Rom 5:18).

In the "protoevangelium," in a certain sense, the Christ is announced for the first time as "the new Adam" (cf. 1 Cor 15:45). Indeed, his victory over sin obtained through "obedience unto the death of the cross" (cf. Phil 2:8), will imply such an abundance of pardon and of saving grace as to overcome immeasurably the evil of the first sin and of all the sins of the human race. St. Paul again writes: "If many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many" (Rom 5:15).

Moreover, solely on the basis of the "protoevangelium," it can be deduced that in regard to the destiny of fallen man (status naturae lapsae) there is already introduced the prospect of future redemption (status naturae redemptae).

The first response of the Lord God to man's sin, contained in Genesis 3, provides us from the beginning with a knowledge of God as infinitely just and at the same time infinitely merciful. From that first announcement he is manifested as that God who "so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (Jn 3:16); who "sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins" (1 Jn 4:10); who "did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all" (Rom 8:32).

Thus we have the certainty that God, who in his transcendent holiness abhors sin, justly punishes the sinner. But at the same time in his ineffable mercy he embraces him in his saving love. The "protoevangelium" already announced this saving victory of good over evil, which will be manifested in the Gospel through the paschal mystery of Christ crucified and risen.

It is to be noted that in the words of Genesis 3:15, "I will put enmity," the woman is placed in the first place in a certain sense: "I will put enmity between you and the woman." Not: "between you and the man," but precisely "between you and the woman." Commentators from the earliest times emphasize that we have here an important parallelism. The tempter—"the ancient serpent"—according to Genesis 3:4, first addressed the woman, and through her obtained his victory. In his turn the Lord God, in announcing the Redeemer, makes the woman the first "enemy" of the prince of darkness. In a certain sense, she should be the first beneficiary of the definitive covenant, in which the powers of evil will be overcome by the Messiah, her Son ("her offspring").

This—I repeat—is an extremely significant detail, if we bear in mind that in the history of the covenant God first of all addresses men (Noah, Abraham, Moses). In this case the precedence appears to belong to the woman, naturally in consideration of her descendant, Christ. Many Fathers and Doctors of the Church see in the woman announced in the "protoevangelium" the Mother of Christ, Mary. She is also the one who first shares in that victory over sin won by Christ. She is free from original sin and from every other sin, as emphasized by the Council of Trent in line with tradition (cf. DS 1516; 1572). As regards original sin in particular, Pius IX solemnly defined it by proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (cf. DS 2803).

Not a few ancient Fathers, as the Second Vatican Council says (cf. LG 56), in their preaching present Mary, the Mother of Christ, as the new Eve (just as Christ is the new Adam, according to St. Paul). Mary takes the place and is the opposite of Eve, who is "the mother of all the living" (Gen 3:20), but also the cause, along with Adam, of the universal fall into sin. Mary is for all the "cause of salvation" by her obedience in cooperating with Christ in our redemption [2] .

The Council made a magnificent synthesis of this doctrine, but we shall now limit ourselves to quoting a text which can serve as the best seal on the catecheses on sin, which we have developed in the light of the ancient faith and hope in the advent of the Redeemer:

"The Father of mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by the acceptance of her who was predestined to be the mother of his Son, so that just as a woman contributed to death, so also a woman should contribute to life. That is true in outstanding fashion of the mother of Jesus, who gave to the world him who is Life itself and who renews all things, and who was enriched by God with the gifts which befit such a role. It is no wonder therefore that the usage prevailed among the Fathers whereby they called the mother of God entirely holy and free from all stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature. Adorned from the first instant of her conception with the radiance of an entirely unique holiness, the Virgin of Nazareth is greeted, on God's command, by an angel messenger as 'full of grace,' and to the heavenly messenger she replies: 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word.' Thus Mary, a daughter of Adam, consenting to the divine Word, became the mother of Jesus, the one and only Mediator. Embracing God's salvific will with a full heart and impeded by no sin, she devoted herself totally as a handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son, under him and with him, by the grace of almighty God, serving the mystery of redemption" (LG 56).

Thus in Mary and through Mary the situation of humanity and of the world has been reversed, and they have in some way re-entered the splendor of the morning of creation.

[1]   cf. Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, II, 73

[2]   cf. Irenaeus, Adv. Haereses, II, 22, 4