By Christopher Yoder
And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan;
and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.
— Mark 1:13
In Maurice Sendak’s delightful children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, the boy Max makes mischief and his mother sends him to his room without his supper. And in Max’s roomy imagination a forest grows, and he travels across an ocean “to where the wild things are.”
And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said “BE STILL!” and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.
There is something like Max’s adventure in St. Mark’s account of the temptation of Jesus. For Mark, alone among the Evangelists, tells us that when the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted of Satan, Jesus “was with the wild beasts.” Like Max, the Lord Jesus went to where the wild things are — and, as we will see, he tamed them. Christ tamed the wild beasts, not with a magic trick, but by conquering Satan and by showing himself to be the rightful King and Lord of all, the Savior of the world.
Jesus was “in the wilderness … with the wild beasts.” Now, the wild beasts (like the wilderness) are ambiguous figures. It’s not immediately clear how the wild beasts are “with” Jesus. Are they hostile, like Satan? Or are they friendly, like the ministering angels? Is the phrase “wild beasts” meant to refer to animals in a general way? Perhaps their presence simply serves to emphasize the loneliness of the wilderness. Or are we meant to think of them as dangerous or repulsive to humans? Did the wild things with Jesus “roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws”?
There’s reason to think that they did. After all, Adam’s fall led to enmity between humanity and the other animals. In Eden, the LORD God brought every living creature to Adam, and Adam named them all (Gen. 2:20). There was peace between man and beast. But the sin of Adam and Eve damaged that relationship. So that — apart from a few precious exceptions — throughout human history the relationship between humans and the wild beasts has been characterized by hostility and fear. God says, “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast” (Gen. 9:2). Above all, there is enmity between one beast and the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, namely, the serpent, who beguiled the woman, and whom the LORD God cursed, saying, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
St. Jerome said that “the desert … abounds in monstrous creatures.” And perhaps this is how we are to think of the wild beasts that were with Christ in the wilderness — as monstrous. Indeed, throughout holy Scripture, monsters do populate desolate places. Think, for example, of Behemoth in the Book of Job, and of Leviathan, the untamable monster of the deep, of whom “the mighty are afraid” (Job 41:25). Or think of how the prophet Isaiah prophesies doom against the enemies of Israel by listing the wild and monstrous beasts that will one day inhabit their cities, which are destined for destruction. Isaiah says:
Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the haunt of jackals,
an abode for ostriches.
And wild beasts shall meet with hyenas,
the satyr shall cry to his fellow;
yea, there shall [Lilith] alight,
and find for herself a resting place. (Isa. 34:13–14, RSV)
For Isaiah, these wild beasts (some of them, like the satyrs and Lilith, seemingly mythological) are meant to evoke the utter desolation and loneliness of places that had once thronged with people. And perhaps it is for a similar reason that St. Mark mentions them, namely, to underscore the loneliness of the wilderness in which Jesus faces temptation.
John Chrysostom writes that, in the desolate wilderness, Christ was tempted “not only by hunger, but also by loneliness.” “For,” Chrysostom says, “it is there most especially that the devil assails us, when he sees us left alone and by ourselves.” Have not the past several years taught us the truth of these words? The isolation engendered and exacerbated by the pandemic has been the devil’s playground. We know too well what it means to recognize, as a collect does, that we “are assaulted by manifold temptations.”
And this brings us to a deeper, spiritual meaning of the wild beasts who were with Jesus. Perhaps they symbolize sin. Perhaps the wild things are with Jesus as so many temptations. Perhaps we should picture them lurking near Jesus, waiting for him to drop his guard. Perhaps they personify sin, as in Genesis, when the LORD warns Cain, “Sin is [crouching, lurking] at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7, RSV, altered). Perhaps they are like the three wild beasts in Dante’s Inferno — the leopard and lion and wolf that menace the poet when he finds himself lost in the shadows of a savage forest. Perhaps St. Mark’s wild beasts, like those in Dante, represent, as Fr. Robert Crouse put it, “not external forces or circumstances, but passions of the soul, fantasies of vices, images of the wilderness within.”
Now, to be clear, Jesus is without sin. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). That is, if the wild beasts symbolize sin or types of sins, then for Jesus they remain only potential threats; but real threats nevertheless. They lurk nearby desiring him. But he has mastered them, and they are kept at bay.
Put differently, Jesus was in the wilderness, but there was no wilderness in him. It is otherwise with us. Apart from the grace of Christ, our hearts are a roaring wasteland, and wild things roam the wilderness within.
“And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him” (Mark 1:13). Here’s the good news: Christ has mastered the wild beasts.
Jesus is sent into the wilderness as the New Adam. Like Adam, he is tempted by Satan. But the New Adam does not fall. He conquers temptation. He breaks the reign of sin. He bruises the serpent’s head. And whether or not the wild beasts were initially hostile towards him, in the end, they are peaceably “with him,” for St. Mark always uses that phrase — to be with someone — to describe close, friendly relations. Christ is with the wild beasts, and they are peaceable. The ancient enmity between man and beast is reversed. And the messianic prophecy of Isaiah begins to find fulfillment:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
and a little child shall lead them. (Isa. 11:6)
In the wilderness, Christ is beginning to make all things new.
And even if the wild beasts are monstrous, then Christ must have been content with their companionship. For he made them, and they are his creatures. It is said that a servant of Christ, Antony of Egypt, once encountered a satyr or faun in the desert — a creature with the body of a man and the legs and horns of a goat. This beast brought Antony some dates to eat and said to him, “We ask you to pray for us to the Lord we share. For we know He came once for the salvation of the world, and His sound has gone out over the whole world.” Whatever you make of this story, the satyr’s point still stands: If Jesus is the Lord of all, then he is “the Lord we share” with all creatures — including those that, to us, are monstrous or unknown. At any rate, stories abound of the saints fostering friendly relations with all kinds of wild animals. St. Jerome had a lion as a companion, St. Francis is said to have tamed a wolf, and the medieval Russian saint Sergii Radonezhsky shared his bread with a bear. For me, these stories radiate the character of Christ.
In the wilderness, Christ begins to undo the damage of sin. His victory over temptation and sin makes possible our own. “By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil,” we pray. He is able to master the wild beasts that populate “the wilderness within,” to quell the evil things that come “from within, out of the heart of man” — “evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21–22). The blood of Jesus “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Christ the Lord can “order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men.” He goes where the wild things are, that we “who are assaulted by manifold temptations” might find him “mighty to save.” For he is able to renew the wilderness within, to make the desert of our hearts to bloom. As he says:
The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad …;
and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.
No lion shall be there,
nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon,
it shall not be found there;
but the redeemed shall walk there:
and the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with songs
and everlasting joy upon their heads:
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa. 35:1, 9–10)
 See Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8 (Anchor Bible).
 Jerome, Life of Paul of Thebes.
In this case, I think, citing the full verse feels less titled than shortening it.