What is the meaning of
the Flaming Chalice to Unitarian Universalists?
Please mouse-over these designs to identify the artists.
(Several chalice font collections can be found on the UUA Website.)
There are various stories about the history of the flaming chalice now widely associated with Unitarian Universalism. The chalice represents sharing, generosity, sustenance, and love, among other interpretations. The flame symbolizes witness, sacrifice, testing, courage, illumination and more.
Some associate the origin of the symbol of the flaming chalice with Jan Hus, a Czech priest and forerunner of the Reformation, who was burned alive at the stake in 1415 for suggesting that lay people should be able to partake of the communion cup in an era when that was only available to the priesthood. It is said that while he was burning, his tainted chalice was thrown into the flames to burn with him.
After Hus' martyrdom, the chalice with a flame became a symbol of religious freedom throughout Europe.
During World War II, the Unitarian Service Committee was founded to help war refugees escape persecution and needed a symbol to identify itself as it worked its way through the Allied underground in Nazi Germany. Many members had heard of the legend of Jan Hus and so, in 1941, USC Artist Hans Deutsch created a simple drawing depicting a flame within a chalice to be used as a symbol for official documents. To Deutsch, the image had connotations of sacrifice and love. Unitarian Universalists today have many different interpretations of the image. To many, the cup represents religious community, while the flame represents ideas including the sacrificial flame, the flame of the spirit, and more.
The director of the USC, Charles Joy, wrote this about the symbol when it was first drafted:
"It represents, as you see, a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their alters. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol for 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 its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the 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 sacrificial love."
Long after the war, some Unitarian Universalist churches began the practice of lighting a chalice during worship while saying some brief reflective words. Eventually the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations commissioned a rendering of a chalice as the official organizational logo of the association.
There is no single interpretation of the flaming chalice. Like our faith, it stands open to new and ongoing interpretation and significance and the image itself has changed many times over the past six decades. Modern renditions often incorporate two overlapping circles which, for many, represent our Unitarian and Universalist heritages. The chalice is also purposefully off-center in many renditions. If it were centered, it would become what we worship, while off to the side, it serves as a beacon and guide in our search for truth and meaning.
Unitarian Universalist congregations are free to use the UUA's official logo in their congregational work, but they are not required to do so. Because of this, you may see many different styles of flaming chalices and other images used by UU congregations.