The Flaming Chalice


Rev. Brian J. Kiely January 4, 2015

January’s theme is “What would it mean to live as people of LIGHT

If you are new to Unitarianism, there are a couple of things you need to know about us.

First, we reject traditional religious doctrinal teachings that don’t make sense to us.  We don’t enjoy being told what we ought to believe.  We prefer to make our own decisions, thank you very much.

Second, we reject the idea that since a religious belief has been around for a couple of thousand years it must be true.  Instead we tend to think that while it’s nice that ancient people worked out beliefs that made sense in their time and place, those beliefs won’t necessarily make sense in our time and place.  Another way of saying that is that we don’t enjoy being told what to believe just because it’s tradition.

But the third thing you need to know about Unitarians is that while we tend to decline the offer of imposed traditions- sometimes vociferously – we are actually terribly fond of them.  We borrow the ones we like (respectfully), like Christmas and sometimes Hanukkah and Samhain.  We are quick to reinterpret the ones that we almost like, and we even invent new ones and invest them with meaning.

And that brings me to today’s topic: the flaming chalice.  Kindling the chalice is a beloved tradition in almost every North American UU congregation and in many others around the world.  It feels really ancient doesn’t it?  It bears the echo of sacred fires and the symbolism can touch some deep place in us.  The words written to honour our chalice symbol could fill a small library.  Why, there is even a free iPhone app called “Illuminations” that let’s you light a selection of chalices on your phone and gives you a new reading every day.

The importance of the flaming chalice  in our congregational lives has been burnished and polished by all those years of, well… lighting… Why it’s important to our identity, because it’s ageless.  Yes the Flaming Chalice stretches all the way back to…1941…or 1976…or sometime in the 1980’s!

What?  Yep, and I will explain.  But the comparative newness of it takes nothing away from its importance.  In fact, the newness of it is kind of very Unitarian.  Some wag once answered the question, “How does a Unitarian Universalist define a tradition?” with, “Anything we do twice.” Like most jokes there is more than a kernel of truth.  Of course after 35 years, it really does qualify as ‘ancient’ in our terms.

I think the comparative newness of the tradition has something significant to say about our Unitarian values as well …and I will also come to that later.

The flaming chalice wasn’t actually designed for or by Unitarian or Universalist churches.  It wasn’t even designed by a Unitarian.  During the 1930’s, as Hitler rose to power, Unitarians and Universalists in the US and Canada became concerned for the fate of the Jews and other refugees.  They began a small mission to help rescue and relocate individuals.

By 1940 this mission had become the Unitarian Service Committee based in Lisbon and Marseilles- favourite ports for people hoping to leave Nazi occupation behind.  Under Executive Director Charles Joy, the USC started issuing travel documents called navicerts in its own name.  Joy reported to Boston HQ that he was amused to find that these documents actually worked.  But knowing the Nazi regime’s love of formality, he thought the documents needed a seal, a visual symbol.  

Joy asked a refugee Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch – he had gotten into trouble sketching unflattering cartoons about Der Furher in Paris -to come up with a few ideas. He drew up a the tall, thin chalice image looking somewhat like a cross with a flame burning.  The whole thing was bounded by an oval with the words Unitarian Service Committee underneath.

What did the flaming chalice mean to its creator? We have only Charles Joy’s report to Boston, January 31, 1941:

“It represents, as you see, a chalice with a flame, 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. In ancient and medieval art this chalice is frequently found, and the design itself, modernized and stylized, though it is, reminds one of the signs seen on the old monastic manuscripts. This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”

The chalice symbol became both an official USC logo and an underground image in occupied Europe during World War II.  It represented the promise of assistance for those hoping to escape Nazi persecution.

A year or two later, Romanian refugee and journalist Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova started the Canadian Unitarian Service Committee and adopted the chalice as well.  She began wearing a uniform with the insignia.  She noted that once the Allies began liberating Europe, having a badge of some kind on uniforms and trucks helped aid get through checkpoints much more easily.

As people worked to raise funds and materiel for both versions of the USC, the symbol became familiar to us, though it was seldom seen in church services.  Most often you would find it in church basements. A generation of volunteers gathered clothing and blankets and organized well-oiled work bees to sort, pack and ship the goods to Europe.  Later they shifted their efforts to Africa and Asia as the demands of WWII relief eased.

For the next 30 years or so that’s where the chalice lived, the logo of our service committees. In 1960 the American Unitarian Association (to which our congregation belonged) and the Universalist Church of America merged to become the Unitarian Universalist Association.

In 1976 in, of all things the directory of Congregations, Ministers, Administrators and Educators – in effect a denominational telephone book- they introduced a new symbol – a slightly updated version of Hans Deutsch’s Flaming Chalice.  It was now surrounded by two intertwined circles to represent the two joined traditions. For awhile the UUA Directory was the only place to see the symbol.

So there you have the first two dates, 1941 and 1976.  But I also mentioned the 1980’s.

No one is really clear about when the lighting of the flaming chalice crept into our Sunday services.  It seems that the new double-ringed chalice slowly caught the imagination of many members.  The best the official history can estimate is that sometime around 1980 some minister somewhere lit a chalice and shared the idea with her or his colleagues.  The practice spread.

I know when I first attended a church in Montreal in 1978 there was no chalice, but when I moved to Toronto in 1982 there was.  And I am told by long term members here that lighting a chalice was only a sometimes thing in this congregation until about 1995.  As the practice spread, so did the use pf the flaming chalice as a logo for individual congregations in what has now become a large and creative variety of designs.

In theology, philosophy and everything else, there is a bit of fashion – a kind of pendulum that swings back and forth.  From the 1950’s through the 1980’s Unitarianism’s pendulum had swung to the side of a kind of austere rational humanism.

Services tended to a bit dry and academic.  They were shaped by intellectual discourse and fine music.  Words like ‘prayer’ were seldom used and ritual was even rarer.  That began to change in the 1980’s as our members started to crave a greater sense of the spiritual.  For many congregations, lighting the chalice was one of the first rituals to creep into to the Sunday service.  Over time it became important, beloved, even.

So here we are in January, 2015.  This month will be our second foray into the idea of using a single theme to inform our activities for the month.  Many of you will have received a theme guide by e-mail, but we have printed copies here as well.  All of our services this month will ask you to consider the idea of “What would it mean to be people of Light?”

The flaming chalice seemed like a good place to start.  Though not the ancient Unitarian symbol we might have mistakenly thought it was when we were newbies, it has become powerful to us.  Why?

Well for one thing, in this delightful, doctrinally free religion of ours, we are pretty much free to invest this relatively new image with all kinds of meaning.  Unlike the Cross or the Star of David or Yin/Yang or Om, we don’t have to look up what it’s supposed to mean.  Well, we can, and find out the stuff I just said.  But there is nothing to stop us from deciding what it means for us, making the image our own, investing it with meaning that fits our view of the world.  And that makes it a fitting symbol of a religion that doesn’t tell you what to believe, but rather asks you what you believe and encourages you to develop your ideas further.


So a question for you to ponder today is what the chalice symbol means for you?  You heard Deutsch’s original influences.  Here are a few others:


Our American friends liken it to the lamp of liberty, the sign of free speech.


The pagans among us note that the cup of sharing has long been part of their lore as has been the purity of the flame.


Activists among us are drawn to the image of the flame as a beacon of justice and truth.


The spiritual among us may see it as a representation of the divine fire burning within.


I’m partial to the idea of the council fire around which countless cultures have gathered to tell stories, decide important things and celebrate and grieve as communities.


But deciding what it might mean for you?  That’s in your hands.  Like I said at the outset, we Unitarians aren’t fond of being told what to believe, so we don’t tell others either.  The only ancient truth contained in this cup is the meaning in your heart.