When we begin our worship services, we kindle a light in a beautiful chalice made of pottery or pewter.
The flaming chalice is the official symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It’s not only employed as a ritual element in our worship services, but also is used as a logo by many Unitarian Universalist congregations.
The flaming chalice symbol brings together two archetypes – a flame and a chalice. Since ancient days, the flame has been a symbol for transcendence and transformation, and a lamp has signified intelligence and the spirit. The chalice in its earliest symbolic form is comprised of two halves of a sphere placed back-to-back. One half of the sphere opens to the heavens – to the spiritual powers, while the other half closes over the earth, and symbolizes earth’s grounding powers. The chalice itself is a bridge between them. In Christianity, of course, the chalice also is the symbol of communion – part of the sacrament that binds believers to their faith, and in pre-Christian faiths, it’s often a feminine symbol signifying creativity, fertility and abundance.
Within Unitarian Universalism, there is no one official meaning of the flaming chalice. Like our faith, it stands open to new and ongoing interpretation and significance. Some say the chalice represents sharing, generosity, sustenance, love and community, and that the flame symbolizes witness, sacrifice, testing, courage, or enlightenment. Some say the symbol is the light of truth held in the warm embrace of community.
The Flaming Chalice in Worship
Each Sunday at UU Church West when we kindle the flame in the chalice at the front of the sanctuary, we’re reminded that we’re moving from ordinary time into sacred time – from individual time into a time shaped by the covenant we have as a community to walk together on the path of shared meaning and shared action for the greater good. Lighting the chalice forms a bridge between the world as we know it every day, and a world of deeper meaning.
UUCW’s Flaming Chalice Logo
Our particular flaming chalice logo was designed by Earl Ferguson, a church member and professional graphic artist. Earl created his original design for “Unitarian Church West” in the early 1970s, and updated it when we changed our name to Unitarian Universalist Church West in the early 1980s. Earl’s original artwork featuring the chalice logo is framed, and hangs outside the Sanctuary.
The Origins of the UU Flaming Chalice Symbol
The Flaming Chalice as a symbol first came into use among Unitarians during World War II – during the time when we were involved first in helping Czech Unitarian refugees escape the Nazis, and then aiding Jewish refugees in the same manner. This work was begun by the Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha for the newly-established Unitarian Service Committee, and later taken up by the Rev. Charles Joy. From the USC headquarters in Portugal, Charles Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents who smuggled people across borders to safety. Being a new and unknown organization was difficult in a world where establishing trust quickly across barriers of language, nationality, and faith was a matter of life and death. Disguises, signs and countersigns, and midnight runs across guarded borders were the means of freedom in those days. So Joy asked an artist, Hans Deutsch, to create a symbol for the Service Committee's papers "to make them look official," he said. "to give dignity and importance to them, and at the same time to symbolize the spirit of our work..."
Deutsch was, himself, a refugee from the Nazis. Living in Paris during the 1930s, he had drawn many political cartoons critical of Adolf Hitler, which meant he had to run for his life when the Nazis invaded his home city in 1940. The symbol he created was a chalice with a flame, described by Charles Joy as, “the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice…” (from www.uua.org/chalice)
The flaming chalice was an effective symbol for the Service Committee’s work, but for decades, no one else used it. When the Unitarians merged with the Universalists to form the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1962, the Unitarian churches did not have a particular symbol in common, though many, especially those with deep historical roots, still had the Christian cross hanging in their sanctuaries. The Universalist symbol at the time of merger was a circle with a small, off-center cross. When we published our first hymnal after merger, we put a beautiful symbol of a tree on the cover.
But gradually, the Unitarian Universalist Association began moving toward adopting the chalice as a symbol on paper. And then the flaming chalice emerged into our worship life at the annual Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1980. A chalice was lit as part of the opening ritual of the main worship service there, and the hundreds of delegates from congregations who witnessed the ritual took it home to their churches, and it spread from there to its near-universal acceptance and use among UU congregations.