flaming chalice symbol brings together two archetypes – a flame and a
chalice. Since ancient days, the flame has been a symbol for
transcendence and transformation, and a lamp signified intelligence and
the spirit. In Christianity the chalice also is the symbol of
communion – part of the sacrament that binds believers to their faith,
and in pre-Christian faiths, it was often a feminine symbol signifying
creativity, fertility and abundance.
Unitarian Universalism, there is no one official meaning of the flaming
chalice. Like our faith, it stands open to new and ongoing
interpretation and significance. Some say the chalice represents
sharing, generosity, sustenance, love and community, and that the flame
symbolizes witness, sacrifice, testing, courage, or enlightenment. Some
say the symbol is the light of truth held in the warm embrace of
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 1930's 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.
Charles Joy felt that this new, unknown Organisation needed some visual
image to represent Unitarianism to the world, especially when dealing
with government agencies abroad. 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, 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 say "Yes!"
The USC was an unknown organisation 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 symbolise 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 to 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.
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
The flaming chalice emerged into our worship life at the
annual Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1980. A chalice was
lit as part of the opening ritual of the main worship service there
and the hundreds of delegates from congregations who witnessed the
ritual took it home to their churches and it spread from there to its
near-universal acceptance and use among UU congregations.
most importantly, it has become a focal point for our
services, representing sharing, generosity, sustenance, love,
enlightenment and the
warm embrace of community.