As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see?"
What does it mean to repent?
John used the figure of drowning. Water is a great leveler. It can ruin my soft robes or my remodeled kitchen. Save me O Lord for the waters have risen up to my neck. When I am in water up to my neck, my busyness ceases. My thoughts grow still. I become as a reed, shaken and bent. Baptism is ritual submersion. Let the waters rise. I have you in my arms, says John, says God who speaks through John, and when you come up again you will be new.
The Church speaks of Baptism as dying with Christ, but ritually, it feels more like being born with him.
Newness of life, not lifestyle change, is what repentance promises.
Consider any of the problems that beset us as a species. Huge corporations devour the earth. People forced out of their homes by war, fire, weather, foreclosure. The oceans emptied of fish. Animals hunted out of existence or driven from their habitats by climate change. A humanity addicted to poisonous oil. A population that keeps growing. We are hungry. There is no rational way out of this, because it was never rational in the first place, but there is a way.
That's because, every Advent, I am guided by John the Baptist. He comes to prepare the way. He drowns me. He overwhelms me so that I can neither see nor breathe, but he also holds me in his arms. And when I come back out, I realize only what a precious gift is life; what a wonder is breath. It is so simple. It is decent.
Repentance, in my view, begins not with change, but with emptiness.