Our Symbol: The Flaming Chalice
A flame within a chalice (a cup with a stem and foot) is a primary symbol of the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. Many of our congregations kindle a flaming chalice in gatherings and worships and feature the chalice symbol prominently.
Hans Deutsch, an Austrian artist, first brought together the chalice and the flame as a Unitarian symbol during his work with the Unitarian Service Committee during World War II. To Deutsch, the image had connotations of sacrifice and love. Unitarian Universalists today have many different interpretations of the flaming chalice, including the light of reason, the warmth of community, and the flame of hope.
Our current official UUA logo debuted in 2014, offering a visual representation of a modern and dynamic faith. Unitarian Universalist congregations are free to use the UUA’s logo in their congregational work, but they are not required to do so. Because of this, you may see many different styles of flaming chalices and other images used by Unitarian Universalist congregations.
Sometimes readings or other words are used to connect the lighting of the chalice to the theme of worship, and often, the lighting of the chalice accompanies the reading of a congregation’s covenant. Our church covenants are the promises we make to each other that hold us together, across a diversity of beliefs, in our shared commitment to each other. The cup of the chalice is like the cradle that holds us in covenant.
Many congregations extinguish their chalice at the close of worship, sometimes with a reminder that those who have gathered together now carry the warmth of human community and the light of truth with them throughout the week. The fire is not so much extinguished as borne in the heart of each person, a new expression of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “divine spark”—the manifestation of divine possibility within each human soul.
Many people are surprised to learn that lighting a chalice as a part of worship only found its way into Unitarian Universalist congregations in the early 1980s. But the path it took to reach the sanctuary is a very Unitarian Universalist one, a story that begins with Nazi resisters and ends with children in the religious education program.
Originally, the flaming chalice was a two-dimensional image stamped on documents created by the Unitarian Service Committee (USC) to help Jewish refugees escape Nazi persecution on the eve of World War II. The design had been hastily put together by the artist Hans Deutsch, himself a refugee. Deutsch was working at the direction of the USC’s director, Rev. Charles Joy, who believed that such a logo would make their paperwork look more official. Rev. Joy would later claim that the design was reminiscent of the lamps of holy oil used by the ancient Greeks and Romans on their altars, and that the flame itself represented a spirit of helpfulness and sacrifice. There has always been a lack of clarity regarding Deutsch’s original intentions, which were quite possibly not highly developed.
Eventually the chalice design formed the basis for the American Unitarian Association’s official logo. After Universalism and Unitarianism merged in 1961, the symbol acquired two overlapping circles, to represent each of the two traditions. Many renditions of the chalice from the time of the merger display the chalice off-centered, a design copied from one popular among many Universalists in the 1950s. That symbol featured a large, open circle with a very small, off-centered cross inside. This signified how Universalism had grown out of the Christian tradition but was still held open to a world of other possibilities and even unanswered questions.
Interestingly, we aren’t sure how the chalice as a two-dimensional artistic rendering transformed itself into the three-dimensional object used in worship. All evidence, though, suggests that the path leads through our children’s religious education programs. Curricula used in the late seventies stressed the meaning of the chalice and encouraged the children to make chalices in different media. Eventually, those chalices morphed into objects that could be lit. The first documented uses of chalices in the main sanctuary are from Sundays on which the children and youth led worship and demonstrated their practice to the adult congregation. How wonderful that a children’s church craft captured the imagination of an entire denomination.
Many enjoy the chalice’s lack of predetermined meaning. One way to understand Unitarian Universalism’s distinctive character is to see it as an orthopraxy. Orthopraxy stresses that the most important religious bonds are formed out of justice actions and loving practice. This contrasts with orthodoxy, more common in the Christian traditions, which stresses correct and often homogeneous beliefs as the most important aspect of religion. The chalice was a symbol invented to represent courageous deeds that were already taking place, which was then developed by children in the cradle of love.