Something interesting happens to those whose imaginations are sparked by the flaming chalice. They start crafting chalices to light in sanctuaries and at home, sculptures to create beauty and meaning in their buildings, and jewelry and other items to wear. I even saw of photo of someone who had a hair tattoo, a chalice design shaved into their hair. I’ve also seen many henna tattoos on hands, ankles, arms.
I’ve also noticed a tendency to begin seeing chalice images in all sorts of places. Recently one of my Unitarian Universalist colleagues posted a picture of a peach that looked like a flaming chalice. Some of you have probably seen photographs of cups of coffee with swirls of cream on top in the shape of a chalice. I have seen chalices in the clouds, in the markings on animals, and in the shape of a tulip.
Something happens to those who are drawn whose imaginations and hearts are sparked by the flaming chalice. Unitarian Universalist W. Garrett Jackson says, “I was drawn to Unitarian Universalism by the flaming chalice. Quite literally, I was saved by the light!”
Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a saving faith. The flaming chalice is a symbol that represents our saving message. It embodies that message. It bears our sacred values and evokes the divine.
Huston Smith, the scholar who has studied and written extensively on world religions, says, “symbolism is the language of religion” (The World’s Religions). Each of the world’s religions has a symbol that it has become known for. For Taoists, there is the yin and the yang. For Buddhists, the eight-spoked wheel. For Jews, the star of David. For Christians, the cross. For Muslims, the star and crescent, for Hindus, the sign of Om. The flaming chalice is that symbol for Unitarian Universalism.
The flaming chalice began as the symbol of the Unitarian Service Committee. In 1940, this group’s mission was to rescue Jews and other refugees from Nazi persecution in Europe. In 1941, they enlisted an artist named Hans Deutsch to create a symbol for them, a symbol that would be recognizable to people regardless of their country or language. Hans Deutsch "drew a chalice with a flame, surrounded by a circle of protection and love. Refugees all over Europe came to know and trust that sign, and the flaming chalice became a symbol of freedom and hope.” The chalice emerged during the troubling times of World War II.
Hans Deutsch combined two ancient, powerful, and sacred symbols: the chalice and the flame. Drinking vessels and chalices have been used on religious altars, with water or wine. Jesus broke bread and shared wine with his disciples, an important ritual that is enacted by Christians today as communion. The chalice represents community, nourishment, and love. Fire is ancient and elemental. Ancient people gathered at a hearth at night and turned to the sun during the day. Bonfires celebrate festival times. Eternal flames mark graves. Lamps and candles are lit in temples, cathedrals, mosques and other houses of worship. Fire speaks to knowledge, transformation, destruction, sacrifice, and illumination. (Circles of Light, “The Flaming Chalice”)
Deutsch brought fire and the chalice together to create the flaming chalice symbol. In 1961 the Unitarians and Universalists merged, and in 1976 they adopted the flaming chalice as the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. The practice of lighting a chalice became part of many Unitarian Universalist worship services. A chalice is often lit at the start of committee meetings, events, programs, and children’s religious education classes.
Deutsch created the chalice symbol more than 60 years ago. It continues to represent freedom, hope, light, learning, caring, and love. It represents truth. Its message offers people strength. The flaming chalice won’t tell someone everything about who we are or what we believe. But it does evoke some of its power and beauty and wisdom.
As a symbol, it points to our history and tradition. It helps to bind us as a community of faith. And it does something else. And this other piece is as important as all the others. In fact, for a symbol to be truly powerful and meaningful—for the flaming chalice to be relevant—this other piece has to be in play. Symbols have to take on a life of their own, because symbols serve as gateways to deeper and to new layers of meaning. They point to mysteries beyond themselves, generating ideas beyond what their initial intention might have been or what might have been anticipated.
The chalice is not only what it meant to those who first created it and brought it to our communities. Each of us also gives the chalice meaning by our interaction with it. The flaming chalice, as with any image, evokes feelings and stirs the imagination of those who encounter it. The chalice can spark a feeling of hope, unity, joy, trust, or compassion. It can be the light that saves you. It can be all of those, or any of those, or something else. This rogue aspect of symbols can upset people who want to control what a symbol means. When cherished symbols are called into question or coopted, controversy can erupt.
Let’s think about some cultural examples for a minute, some that are quite familiar to us collectively. Just think about a rainbow, a peace sign, and a flag. Any one of those has multiple meanings and not always positive ones for everyone. I could tell you some of the history and tradition associated with each one of these.
But you probably have a visceral and immediate reaction to these symbols and a sense of what they suggest to you. A rainbow can be a symbol of hope. It may cause you to think of Judy Garland and the Wizard of Oz. It has also come to symbolize LGBTQ diversity and justice, and to have spiritual connotations.
The peace sign carries an anti-war message. It was also used during the civil rights movement. Does anyone know where it originated? It originated with the no-nukes movement. When I see the symbol I tend to think of hippies, music festivals, tie-die, and tree-hugging peace lovers. For me, those are positive associations.
The flag, we know, is a symbol with complicated and controversial associations. Taking a knee during the national anthem has become symbolic of protest against racism, on the one hand, and protest against the American flag, on the other. In a press conference after sitting out during the anthem, Colin Kaepernick said,
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
On the other end of the spectrum, taking a knee is being cast as unpatriotic, as a disparagement to the flag. (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/taking-a-k...)
The controversy reveals the significance of the flag to so many Americans, and the diverse understandings of what it means to us to be patriotic. A symbol that can generate such complex layers of meaning is a symbol that has incredible power.
Enduring symbols resist our efforts to reign them in too tightly. They refuse to be reduced to a single vision. You can’t talk someone out of their emotional connection to a rainbow or the flag.
So it is with our sacred symbol, the flaming chalice. Holding onto one vision of what it means would be dangerous, limiting, and even dispiriting. The chalice is not supposed to mean one thing and only that one thing. Instead the meaning continues to unfurl as we evolve and grow as humans and as our faith evolves and grows. The chalice acquires new associations as new people come into our faith with a diversity of experiences and identities and as they interact with the flaming chalice.
The flaming chalice has a history, one that is inspiring and emboldening. But you don’t need to remember all the details. You don’t need to remember the dates and the names. I do hope you will distill the essence of the history. But more than that I encourage you to reflect on what the flaming chalice inspires in you. When you see our beautiful sculpture, when we light the chalice on Sunday morning, when we speak chalice lighting words, what do these experiences mean to you?
For me lighting the chalice is a sacred ritual. It is an invocation, a prayer, a spiritual practice, a communal practice. The chalice represents my core spiritual values, which are rooted in Unitarian Universalism. The flaming chalice represents to me a life of service, transcending mystery which I call God, the open mind, and beauty. It binds me to you and to the larger body of Unitarian Universalism. When a chalice is lit, I know that I am with my spiritual kin.
I encourage each of you to take some time to name for yourself what the chalice means to you. Each week as we gather, how does it touch your heart, your mind, your spirit? How does it hold a vision for this community?
W. Garrett Jackson said he was saved by the light of the flaming chalice. He is currently incarcerated for mistakes in his professional life. While in prison, he found that Unitarian Universalism has a prison ministry. He continues to be able to participate in Unitarian Universalist community through correspondence with his home congregation and the prison ministry. He says of the chalice:
The flaming chalice is more than just a symbol of our congregations. To me, it’s a symbol of ourselves—the good works, kind words, compassion, and pursuit of knowledge that each of us is capable of, our individual piece of the divine spark. As a public servant, military service member, active citizen, educator, son, partner, father, and now as a prisoner, Unitarian Universalism has never made me feel the need to compromise my beliefs or sacrifice them. I can be who I am, what I am, and be accepted for all that I am. (Testimony, ed., Meg Riley, “Saved by the Light”)
Have you been saved by the light of the flaming chalice? Has it given you strength in difficult times? Have you been inspired, uplifted, empowered, liberated, healed, emboldened?
I now light a second chalice. This chalice was given to me by the children at a Unitarian Universalist camp where I served as chaplain a few years ago. I light this chalice now in silence, making space for your words, for what the flaming chalice inspires in you.
Amen. Blessed be.