by Dan Hotchkiss
At the opening of Unitarian Universalist worship services, many
congregations light a flame inside a chalice. This flaming chalice has
become a well-known symbol of our denomination. It unites our members
in worship and symbolizes the spirit of our work.
The flaming chalice combines two archetypes-a drinking vessel
and a flame-and as a religious symbol has different meanings to
Chalices, cups, and flagons can be found worldwide on ancient
manuscripts and altars. The chalice used by Jesus at his last Passover
seder became the Holy Grail sought by the knights of Wales and England.
Jan Hus, Czech priest and forerunner of the Reformation, was burned at
the stake for proposing, among other things, that the communion chalice
be shared with the laity. More recently, feminist writer Riane Eisler
has used the chalice as a symbol of the "partnership way" of being in
community. Sharing, generosity, sustenance, and love are some of the
meanings symbolized by a chalice.
As a sacrificial fire, flame has been a central symbol for the
world's oldest scriptures, the Vedic hymns of India. Today, lights
shine on Christmas and Hanukkah, eternal flames stand watch at
monuments and tombs, and candles flicker in cathedrals, temples,
mosques, and meeting houses. A flame can symbolize witness, sacrifice,
testing, courage, and illumination.
The chalice and the flame were brought together as a Unitarian
symbol by an Austrian artist, Hans Deutsch, in 1941. Living in Paris
during the 1930s, Deutsch drew critical cartoons of Adolf Hitler. When
the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, he abandoned all he had and fled to
the South of France, then to Spain, and finally, with an altered
passport, into Portugal.
There, he met the Reverend Charles Joy, executive director of
the Unitarian Service Committee (USC). The Service Committee was new,
founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, among them Unitarians as
well as Jews, who needed to escape Nazi persecution. From his Lisbon
headquarters, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents.
Deutsch was most impressed and soon was working for the USC. He later wrote to Joy:
There is something that urges me to tell you . . . how
much I admire your utter self denial [and] readiness to serve, to
sacrifice all, your time, your health, your well being, to help, help,
I am not what you may actually call a believer. But if your kind of
life is the profession of your faith-as it is, I feel sure-then
religion, ceasing to be magic and mysticism, becomes confession to
practical philosophy and-what is more-to active, really useful social
work. And this religion-with or without a heading-is one to which even
a 'godless' fellow like myself can say wholeheartedly, Yes!
The USC was an unknown organization in 1941. This was a special
handicap in the cloak-and-dagger world, where establishing trust
quickly across barriers of language, nationality, and faith could mean
life instead of death. Disguises, signs and countersigns, and midnight
runs across guarded borders were the means of freedom in those days.
Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for their papers "to make them
look official, to give dignity and importance to them, and at the same
time to symbolize the spirit of our work. . . . When a document may
keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police,
it is important that it look important."
Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to the USC
and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism. With pencil and ink
he drew a chalice with a flame. It was, Joy wrote his board in Boston,
'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. . . . This was in the mind of the
artist. The fact, however, that it remote-ly 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
The flaming chalice design was made into a seal for
papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom. In time it
became a symbol of Unitarian Universalism all around the world.
The story of Hans Deutsch reminds us that the symbol of a flaming
chalice stood in the beginning for a life of service. When Deutsch
designed the flaming chalice, he had never seen a Unitarian or
Universalist church or heard a sermon. What he had seen was faith in
action-people who were willing to risk all for others in a time of
Today, the flaming chalice is the official symbol of the UU
Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Officially or unofficially, it functions as a logo for hundreds of
congregations. Perhaps most importantly, it has become a focal point
for wor-ship. No one meaning or interpretation is official. The flaming
chalice, like our faith, stands open to receive new truths that pass
the tests of reason, justice, and compassion.
The Reverend Dan Hotchkiss is a Unitarian Universalist
minister who writes and consults on congregational leadership,
fundraising, and conflict management. Source: Unitarian Universalist Association and
the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches Purchase paper copies of the "The Flaming Chalice"
pamphlet from the UUA
Bookstore for distribution or display.