The Protoevangelium of Salvation

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 17 December 1986, the Holy Father reflected further on Genesis 3:15, called the Protoevangelium, the first announcement of the coming of Christ, the Redeemer.  

1. In the fourth Eucharistic prayer (canon IV), the Church addresses God with the following words: "We praise you, Holy Father, because you are great: because you made all things with wisdom and love. In your image you created man and you entrusted the entire universe to him, so that, serving only You, his Creator, he might dominate all creation. And, when he lost your friendship through disobedience, you did not abandon him to the power of death ...".

In harmony with the truth that the Church expresses in this prayer, in the preceding catechesis we highlighted the complex content of the words of Gen 3, which constitute God's response to man's first sin. This text speaks of the fight against "the forces of darkness", in which man is committed because of sin from the beginning of his history on earth: but at the same time it is ensured that God does not abandon man himself, he does not leave him "in the power of death", reduced to being a " slave of sin " (cf. Rom .6, 17). In fact, addressing the tempting serpent, God says to him thus: "I will establish enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; she will strike your head when you strike her heel" ( Gen 3:15 ) .

2. These words of Genesis have been considered as the " protoevangelium ", that is, as the first announcement of the Messiah the Redeemer . Indeed, they allow a glimpse of God's salvific plan for the human race, which after original sin found itself in the state of decline that we know ( status naturae lapsae ). They express above all what constitutes the central event in God's salvific plan . That same event referred to in the IV Eucharistic Prayer cited above, when he addresses God with this profession of faith: "And you loved the world so much, Holy Father, that, when the fullness of time was fulfilled, you sent us as Savior to your only son. Who was incarnated by the work of the Holy Spirit, was born of the Virgin Mary, and thus shared our human condition in everything, except sin".

3. The proclamation of Gen 3 is called "protoevangelium", because it has found its confirmation and its fulfillment only in the Revelation of the New Covenant, which is the Gospel of Christ. In the Old Alliance this announcement was constantly remindedin different ways, in the rites, in the symbolisms, in the prayers, in the prophecies, in the very history of Israel as "people of God" oriented towards a messianic end, but always under the veil of the imperfect and provisional faith of the Old Testament. When the fulfillment of the announcement in Christ takes place, there will be the full revelation of the Trinitarian and messianic content implicit in the monotheism of Israel. The New Testament will then reveal the full meaning of the writings of the Old Testament, according to the famous aphorism of St. Augustine: "In vetere Testament novum latet, in novo vetus patet", that is, "In the Old Testament the New is latent, in the New the Old is patent" (cf. Quaestiones in Heptateucum , II, 73).

The analysis of the "protoevangelium" makes us, then, know, through the announcement and promise contained in it, that God did not abandon man to the power of sin and death. He wanted to reach out his hand and save him. And he did it in his own way, to the extent of his transcendent holiness , and at the same time to the extent of a "compassion" such as only a God-Love could demonstrate.

The very words of the "protoevangelium" express that salvific compassion , when they announce the fight ("I establish enmities!") between the one who represents "the forces of darkness" and the One who in Genesis calls "the race of the woman" (" his race"). It is a fight that will end with the victory of Christ ("he will crush your head"). But this will be the victory obtained at the price of the sacrifice of the cross ("when you strike his heel"). The "mystery of godliness" dispels the "mystery of iniquity." In fact, precisely the sacrifice of the cross makes us penetrate into the very essential core of sin, allowing us to grasp something of its dark mystery.the disobedience of one , all became sinners, so, by the obedience of one, all will become righteous "( Rom 5, 19). "...if the sin of one brought condemnation to all, also justice from one he will bring salvation and life" ( Rom 5:18 ).

5. In the " protoevangelium " in a certain sense Christ is announced for the first time as "the new Adam" (cf. 1 Cor 15, 45). Moreover, his victory over sin obtained through "obedience to the point of death on the cross" (cf. Phil 2, 8), will bring such an abundance of forgiveness and saving grace that it will surpass immeasurably the evil of the first sin and of all the sins of men . Saint Paul also writes: "If all died through the fault of one, much more, thanks to one man, Jesus Christ, the benevolence and gift of God overflowed over all" ( Rom 5, 15).

Even without leaving the terrain of the "protoevangelium", it can be discovered that the fate of fallen man (status naturae lapsae) already introduces the prospect of future redemption (status naturae redemptae).

6. The first response of the Lord God to man's sin, contained in Gen 3, thus allows us to know God from the beginning as infinitely just and at the same time infinitely merciful . He, from the first proclamation, manifests himself as the God who "so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son" ( Jn 3, 16); that he "sent his son as a propitiatory victim for our sins" ( 1 Jn 4:10 ); that he "did not spare his own Son, but handed him over to death for us" ( Rom 8:32).

We thus have the certainty that God, who in his transcendent holiness abhors sin, justly punishes the sinner , but in his ineffable mercy at the same time embraces him with his saving love . The "protoevangelium" already announces this salvific victory of good over evil, which will manifest itself in the Gospel through the paschal mystery of Christ crucified and risen.

7. It should be noted how in the words of Gén 3, 15 "I establish enmities", in a certain sense the woman is placed first ; "I establish enmities between you and the woman." Not: between you and the man , but precisely: between you and the woman . Commentators from very ancient times stress that a significant parallelism is at work here. According to Gen 3:4, the tempter — "the ancient serpent" — turned first to the woman, and through her he won her victory. In turn, the Lord God, by announcing the Redeemer, constitutes Woman as the first "enemy" of the prince of darkness. She must be, in a sense,the first recipient of the definitive Alliance , in which the forces of evil will be defeated by the Messiah, his Son ("his lineage").

8. This —I repeat— is a particularly significant detail, if one takes into account that, in the history of the Covenant, God addresses himself first of all to men (Noah, Abraham, Moses). In this case the precedence seems to be that of the Woman , naturally out of consideration for her Descendant, Christ . Indeed, 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 for the first time participates in that victory over sin achieved by Christ: she is, therefore, free from original sin and from any other sin , as the Council of Trent already underlined in line with Tradition (cf. DS1516; 1573) and, as far as original sin is concerned, Pius IX solemnly defined it, proclaiming the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception (cf. DS 2803).

"Not a few ancient Fathers", as the Second Vatican Council says (Const. Lumen Gentium , 56), in their preaching present Mary, Mother of Christ, as the new Eve (just as Christ is the new Adam, according to Saint Paul) . Mary takes her place and constitutes the opposite of Eve, who is "the mother of all living" ( Gen 3:20 ), but also the cause, with Adam, of the universal fall into sin, while Mary is for all "causa salutis" for his obedience in cooperating with Christ in our redemption (cf. Irenaeus, Adv. haereses , III, 22, 4).

9. Magnificent is the synthesis that the Council makes of this doctrine of faith, of which for now we limit ourselves to referring to a text that can be the best seal for the catechesis on sin, which we have developed in the light of the ancient faith and hope in the advent of the Redeemer: "The incarnation was preceded by acceptance by the predestined Mother, so that in this way, just as women contributed to death, women also contributed to life. This is fulfilled in an eminent way in the Mother of Jesus for having given the world Life itself that renews all things... Therefore, it is not surprising that among the Holy Fathers the custom of calling the Mother of God prevailed totally holy and immune from all stain of sin, as molded and made a new creature by the Holy Spirit" (cf. Lumen Gentium 56)

"Enriched from the first moment of her conception with the splendor of an entirely singular holiness, the Virgin of Nazareth, by order of God, is greeted by the angel of the annunciation as 'full of grace' (cf. Lk 1, 28), while She responds to the heavenly messenger: 'Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word' ( Lk 1, 38).Thus, Mary, daughter of Adam, by accepting the divine message, became a Mother of Jesus, and by wholeheartedly embracing the salvific will of God, without being hindered by any sin, she consecrated herself totally as a slave of the Lord to the person and work of her Son, diligently serving the mystery of redemption with Him and under He, with the grace of Almighty God" ( Lumen Gentium ,56).

In Mary and through Mary, thus, the situation of humanity and of the world has been transformed, which have somehow re-entered the splendor of the morning of creation.

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