The flaming chalice has become the internationally-recognized symbol of the Unitarian movement. While originally only appearing as a device on letterheads and neckties, the lighting of a chalice is increasingly becoming a feature of communal worship in Unitarian congregations.
The philosopher A.N. Whitehead said that real symbols have the power to change history. The history of the chalice symbol is significant. It began by representing the religious courage of Jan Hus, a 15th century Czech priest, who was martyred for offering communion to his congregants in defiance of the Roman church, which reserved the sharing of wine to priests only. He was burnt at the stake for this act, and Unitarians too have a history of being persecuted for innovative and democratic deeds in religion.
During the Second World War an American Unitarian, Reverend Charles Joy, was stationed in Lisbon to help refugees from Nazism escape to safe havens. As executive director of the Unitarian Service Committee he felt that this new, unknown organisation needed some visual image to represent Unitarianism to the world, especially when dealing with government agencies abroad.
He commissioned a Czech refugee and cartoonist, Hans Deutsch, to design something that could be used on official documents, and thus an early version of the modern chalice came into being.
Joy described what Deutsch had drawn in the following terms: “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 remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has 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 its central theme of sacrificial love.”
The American Universalists and Unitarians merged in the early sixties, and versions of the symbol were adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association and by the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in Britain. It has since been used by Unitarian churches in other parts of the world.
Unitarianism values insights from the present as well as the past. It is appropriate therefore that the flaming chalice symbol should have both ancient and modern roots, in both instances grounded in the principles of sacrifice and service to humanity.
The symbol of the chalice flame may be further understood as a metaphor for the lives of human beings, both as individuals and in community.
A cup is a familiar object made to be held and passed around — for sharing. A flame, by contrast, is not an object. It cannot be weighed or measured. It is no static thing, but a dynamic, changing process.
The flame needs three elements. The first of these is fuel. Fuel is material — like the human body, like the treasured buildings and books, money and documents of a church community. If a fire lacks fuel it is said to be “burning low” like a candle in its final moments. The flame shrinks until it is just a feeble glow.
Unitarians are not ascetic or “other-worldly” but try to take a realistic and rational view of life. Unitarians readily accept that, like kindling for a fire, people in their private lives and collectively need the fuel of physical things.
The second element is heat. Think of the heat of life itself, distinguishing the living from the dead; the spark of intelligence, the warmth of human encounter, even the friction of disagreement. If a fire lacks heat, as when you dampen a flame with water, it is said to be guttering.
To develop as human beings, people also need heat. The vitality of congregational life, activities which animate and engross, thought-provoking moments that challenge are signs of a healthy liberal religious community. Unitarians believe that society is sustained by the warmth that functioning and supportive communities can provide.
The third element is air. Spirit has always been compared with air, or wind — by Greeks and Hebrews alike. If a fire lacks air, we say that it is smouldering. There is much heat and thick black smoke, but little or no light. Modern life is too often like this.
Unitarians are open to the importance of personal religious experience, whether in chapel on a Sunday, on a mountain-top, or in everyday moments during the working week. To develop, people need air — or spirit: the inspiration, or breathing in, of that invisible, yet vital element; the deep moments of the self in prayer or meditation; the shared movement of the heart when the spirit is felt.
A Living Flame
Unitarians, unlike Moses, do not simply find the fire burning in the wilderness. The flaming chalice is no burning bush, but something to be lit, and re-lit, by every person. It requires an act of will, of purpose and of faith.
Unitarianism allows persons to develop freely, without the constrictions of received dogma, while experiencing the warmth of community. Unitarians are open to the truths that science has bequeathed, including the truth that darkness has no existence in itself. Darkness is the absence of light. Unitarians believe the way to overcome the darkness is to light our lamps whenever we meet.