This is the holiest time of the year for Christians (except orthodox Christians, who will celebrate Easter in May) and one of the holiest for Jews. At Passover, Jews and Christians celebrate the Exodus: God liberating the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. Christians recognize a second salvation, roughly 1,300 years later: Easter, by which God saved all humans from slavery to sin and death. That came about, they say, through the sacrificial death and miraculous rising of Jesus, God's son and the promised Messiah.
Many readers of this newspaper do not practice either Christianity or Judaism, but hopefully they value some of the concepts these holidays celebrate: liberty from oppression and from the bad choices we ourselves have made - the notion that sins and crimes can be forgiven, through sacrifice and mercy.
So regardless of one's religious beliefs, why pass up an opportunity to think of one's cosmology? That's what Paul Smith's College students did this week with a lively debate about the existence of God. Two students, an atheist and a Christian, presented their best arguments for and against, a report of which appeared in Friday's Enterprise. It took place on Thursday - Holy Thursday to Christians, when they remember how Jesus and his apostles celebrated a momentous Passover supper together before his death.
One topic the students batted around, naturally, was morality. But morality, whether it is the teaching of God or common sense, is remarkably common among people, regardless of religion. Moral behavior could be defined as that which best ensures that humans can get along with each other in sustainable, long-term harmony. It is inherited wisdom that humans have gradually learned over time. It has been found to work, and therefore it has been passed on to following generations. Religion has played a huge role in that process, and so have those who challenged religious institutions. The best were both religious and challenging.
Morality has evolved over time, as one can see by investigating the codes of former times, but there's a large shared core of it that mostly is upheld as unquestionably good by people throughout the world. That core was the subject of a recent gathering in Vatican City in which the new Catholic leader, Pope Francis, met with world religious and non-religious leaders and called on all of them to join in protecting the poor and the natural environment.
The new pope, by the way, has been inspirational in other ways, too. He broke established Catholic canon law by symbolically washing women's feet as well as men's on Holy Thursday. Beyond that, the feet he washed were those of prisoners rather than priests.
Holy Thursday is also when the pope traditionally reminds priests of their vows, and in his sermon that day, Francis warned against priests withdrawing into themselves, isolating themselves from the communities they're supposed to serve. He gave the old shepherd metaphor an earthy new twist, saying priests should know the smell of their sheep. That, he said, means reaching outside themselves, not viewing their profession as exceptional.
That is certainly a good development. The notion that priests are exceptions - for instance, to laws meant to prevent child sex abuse - got the Catholic church in a whole lot of trouble a few years ago.
These Easter and Passover holidays should remind us that humans can be freed - both from oppression by others and from the trap of their misdeeds - although a certain amount of sacrifice and mercy are required.
And humility, too. While we may think we know how the cosmos works, human knowledge is pretty limited. Here's hoping that we can all get along with each other relatively well as we wait to learn answers to the big questions, whether in this world or beyond.