Unitarian Universalist 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.

At the beginning of a service, congregations often use readings or other words to connect the lighting of the chalice to the theme of worship. Many times the lighting of the chalice accompanies the reading of a congregation’s covenant. Church covenants are the promises we make to each other. They 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.

The end of the service involves extinguishing the chalice. The fire is not so much extinguished as borne in the heart of each person. This becomes a new expression of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “divine spark”—the manifestation of divine possibility within each human soul. Sometimes 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 accompanies this ritual.

History of the Flaming Chalice

Surprisingly, 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. The story 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. An Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch brought together the chalice and the flame as a Unitarian symbol. He had been a refugee himself. He accomplished this during his work with the Unitarian Service Committee. Deutsch worked at the direction of the USC’s director, Rev. Charles Joy. Joy believed that such a logo would make their paperwork look more official.

To Deutsch, the image possessed connotations of sacrifice and love. He likened the design to the lamps of holy oil used by the ancient Greeks and Romans on their altars. Deutsch’s original intentions are not definitively known. It’s quite possible they were not highly developed. Unitarian Universalists hold many different interpretations of the flaming chalice. Some of those include the light of reason, the warmth of community, and the flame of hope.

Modern Day

Today, no one is sure how the two-dimensional chalice transformed itself into the three-dimensional object used in worship. All evidence suggests that the path leads through our children’s religious education programs. Curricula used in the late seventies stressed the meaning of the chalice. It also 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.

Later, the official UUA logo debuted in 2014. It offers 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.

Photo of Bis-Man UU’s Chalice

In the end, 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.

Quote by former Unitarian Universalist Association President Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray