Lighting the Flaming Chalice

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The Flaming Chalice’s Origins

Like most Unitarian Universalists, whenever we gather, we light a candle that rests within a chalice. Together, the container and the candle become the flaming chalice.

Created for the Unitarian Service Committee (USC) in 1941 by an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch, the flaming chalice symbolizes freedom, hope, helpfulness, aFlaming Chalicend service. At the time of World War II, the USC was new and unknown. Formed to help those fleeing Nazi oppression, the organization needed to be trusted, so the Reverend Charles Joy, executive director of the USC, wanted a logo or symbol they could place on packages and papers to make them look official. The logo would also be a sign that refugees could trust a box of supplies or a person sent to help them reach safety.

In Portugal where Deutsch had fled, the artist met Joy, who soon asked him to design a symbol that would represent the spirit of the USC’s work. Impressed by their selfless dedication to Unitarians, Jews, and others, Deutsch designed the flaming chalice for the fledgling organization. To him, the cup with a flame symbolized helpfulness and sacrifice.

The Symbolism of the Flaming Chalice

Today, the Unitarian denomination has merged with the Universalists, so we are the Unitarian Universalists. The Unitarian Service Committee became the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. They still use the flaming chalice as designed by Deutsch, except that instead of the one ring the artist drew around it, today’s chalice is encircled by two. This represents the joining of the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961.

The chalice is rich with symbolism. The cup is the community that holds us; the flame is the light of love and life. In a chalice reading he made available to Unitarian Universalist congregations, Eric A. Heller-Wagner reminds us that our chalice symbolizes compassion, justice, love, faith, and the “flame of the human spirit” that reflects the “divine glow in every life.” Read his poem on the UUA’s Worship Web.

Universalist Recovery Church and the Flaming Chalice

In most Unitarian Universalist congregations, before lighting the chalice, the worship leader will read words or recite a covenant. Sometimes the reading is the same every time; sometimes it varies with the theme of the day.

By lighting the chalice, we affirm our connection to the larger faith. Igniting the flame, we honor our coming together and our being together. To set the tone for the service, we share a short reflection on that day’s topic.

For more information about the chalice, visit the page about our flaming chalice on the UUA’s website.