A friend of mine, who is also a family therapist, recently explained to me the concept of a "nodal event." Within the Bowen Family Systems Theory, a nodal event is something in one's family history that affects not only the individual but can also place anxiety and distress on an entire multi-generational family system. Examples of nodal events include divorce, remarriage, abuse, disease, or death. These events have a tremendous ripple effect, because they affect how people interact with others in future relationships. While these events are not necessarily sins, the concept of nodal events gives insight into how sin can limit a person's freedom from a young age.
The word "nodal" stems from the Latin word nodus meaning "knot." Appropriately named, these events represent the maladaptive dynamics that tie and bind us and can inhibit our freedom to flourish. The idea of past actions having ongoing and self-reinforcing consequences is nothing new. Biblical narratives illustrate the high degree of sophistication with which our ancestors in faith understood evil in the world as stemming from past actions, which extend into the present. Catholic thought on social sin recognizes that because human beings are individuals in relationship with others, sin has both personal and social dimensions. John Paul II wrote in Reconciliation and Penance (1984), "With greater or lesser violence, with greater or lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family. According to this first meaning of the term, every sin can undoubtedly be considered as social sin." Our actions affect others, and the accumulation of harmful actions often develop to into subtle structures of sin.
As we celebrate the Christmas season and the Holy Family, a glance at the Gospel of Matthew's presentation of the family tree of Jesus give us awareness that our human family is peppered with nodal events. We often think of the Holy Family as just Mary, Joseph and Jesus, but Matthew's genealogy reveals the deep knots and generational dysfunction in "The rod of Jesse's stem." The extended Holy Family has no paucity of violence, greed, lust, idolatry. Embedded within these knotty situations is also God's pledge to remain with us and heal us. Just as sin has social consequences, grace abounds all the more.
Helping families has been a goal of Pope Francis. His words from Evangelii Gaudium were echoed in the final report of the Synod on the Family: "The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds." The same chains that plagued Jesus' extended family continue to entangle the entire human family. The opening line of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is a simple reminder of infinite possibilities of knots and chains. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." While the possibilities for snares are unlimited, Christ's coming into the world is the solvent event, which loosens our familial nodes and breaks our social fetters.
Writ large in society and writ small in our families, every social structure has its own dynamics, secrets and nodal events. We are part of systems and structures that make it very easy to cooperate with ongoing oppression, injustice, poverty and violence. The narrative of the Star Wars movies offers two ready examples of individuals trapped by circumstances. In the latest episode, just released in December, Finn (dubbed only as FN-2187) was programmed from birth to serve the First Order, while Princess Leia was captured and enslaved by Jabba and his retinue of fellow criminals. Both Finn and Leia, however, also are able to escape and work for the freedom of others. Finn (FN-2187's "post-conversion name") and General Leia (her new position) both give us new hope that chains can be broken and knots of sin undone. Whatever malignant patterns we may have chosen or inherited, the Incarnation of the Lord celebrates a pruning and untying of these knots. This loosening of tangles is rarely instantaneous. It is not until the third verse of "O Holy Night" where we hear about liberation from chains:
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Truly He taught us to love one another.
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains He shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
This loosening of family chains is a great entre into the Jubilee year of mercy. Our Lady Undoer of Knots, pray for us.