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Sunt lacrimae rerum,” Aeneas tells his companion Achates as they gaze at a mural of the Trojan War shortly after his arrival in Carthage (Aeneid 1.462). “Here are the tears of things.” Whatever Virgil or Aeneas meant, this ambiguous, haunting line has reverberated down the centuries and reverberates still.

An elderly widow dies of COVID in a New York nursing home, untouched, uncomforted, surrounded by strangers dressed like astronauts, forbidden to see her grandchildren except through a Plexiglas shield. Locked in his London flat, allowed to venture out only once a day, a young waiter whose restaurant has been shuttered reverts to the drug habit he hoped he had left behind. Across the Midwest, hundreds of desperate middle-aged men drink themselves to death.

With Russian bombs raining down above, a pregnant woman gives birth to her first child inside a Kyiv subway station. A Ukrainian pastor is arrested in Mariupol’ and disappears into Russia. In the war-torn, locust-infested Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, girls and boys starve to death before relief aid can reach their village. 

Sunt lacrimae rerum. Here are the tears of things.

Islamist gangs kill and burn their way through villages in Nigeria. Hindu nationalists invade Indian church services, beat worshippers, and kill pastors. Away from the cameras, without publicity or scrutiny, a little girl hides in a closet in a pathetic attempt to escape her drunk father. In Thailand, children are kidnapped and initiated into the sex trade. A child living alone on the streets of Brasilia hawks surgical masks at street corners. Millions grow up in worlds controlled by drug lords, where it’s axiomatic “that girls are raped, that two boys knife a third.” Millions have never heard “of any world where promises were kept, / Or one could weep because another wept” (Auden, “The Shield of Achilles”).

Sunt lacrimae rerum

In the comfortable penthouses that rise above the world’s cities, dreams turn to nightmares. As Pope Francis has said, “we fed ourselves on dreams of splendor and grandeur, and ended up consuming distraction, insularity and solitude. We gorged ourselves on networking, and lost the taste of fraternity. We looked for quick and safe results, only to find ourselves overwhelmed by impatience and anxiety. Prisoners of a virtual reality, we lost the taste and flavor of the truly real.”

Sunt lacrimae rerum. Here are the tears of things.

Long ago, there were tears in Bethany, near the grave of Lazarus, a man Jesus loved: et lacrimatus est Jesus. “Jesus wept.” The Man of Sorrows groans, as much in outrage at the dominion of death as in sorrow for his friend. He rages with us against what Paul Griffiths calls “the Devastation.” He enters, more fully than we can imagine, into our God-forsakenness. Having suffered all, he can sympathize with all. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.

In “Easter Hymn,” A. E. Housman threw down a challenge to the Lord “at the right hand of majesty on high”: If you “remember yet / Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat / Your cross and passion and the life you gave, / Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.” He does remember, and his resurrection means that his sympathy is more than sympathy. The Jesus who weeps over Lazarus, who sheds the tears of things, is the Jesus who cries with a voice loud enough to raise the dead. He shared our tears, and remembers them, so he can dry them.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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