THE FLAMING CHALICE: WHAT IT MEANS TO UUs
Rev. Kit Ketcham, May 17, 2015, PUUF
Hey, remember when we’d go to summer camp and sit around a big bonfire at night, make googly eyes at each other across the flames, and sing goofy songs like this: Sing with me if you remember it:
One dark night, when we were all in bed, old Missus O’Leary put a lantern in the shed. The cow kicked it over and winked her eye and said “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight! Fire, fire, fire, fire!”
Whether we experience it in a friendly way, around a campfire or in front of a fireplace in a cozy room, or as a frightening event in our lives, there’s something compelling about fire. We seem drawn to its light, its warmth, its flickering magic, the smoke that rises into the skies. And we may also shrink froom its glare, its inferno-like heat, the caustic fumes it can generate, and we fear its destructive power even as we kindle a small cooking fire.
We light candles for our own quiet times, or when we desire a sense of the holy—or the romantic! We take care not to let fire get out of control, we keep fire extinguishers handy in our kitchen, by the hearth, and at the campsite.
We gaze in horror at times at the destructive nature of fire upon homes, landscapes, forests, and we also marvel at its regenerative powers when the ravaged land begins to bloom again.
A cup, too, a goblet, a container for lifegiving liquids, has significance to us. How many mugs with funny sayings on them have you received over your lifetime? We give and receive gifts of containers, from silly mugs to beautiful wine glasses to beer steins and even pasta bowls.
All of these gifts are intended to hold something we value---our morning cup of coffee or tea, a glass of wine, a cold brew, a hearty meal. We look at the goofy mug and think of its giver---our child who tells us we’re the best mom or dad ever, our sister or brother who can’t resist making one more joke about the difference in our ages.
We raise our glasses high and drink a toast to the bond between newlyweds. We look at the etching on a crystalline commemorative stein and remember occasions of joy. We pour savory sauce over the pasta in the wide bowl and anticipate its delicious flavors.
Our flaming chalice is a combination of these two things: a bit of fire and a container to hold it. A flame and a safe environment for that flame.
Today we’re going to consider how our flaming chalice came to be important to Unitarian Universalists, the variety of meanings ascribed to it, a bit about its history, and what it means that we light it at the beginning of every worship service and even at board meetings and other gatherings. And I’m going to ask you for your thoughts a few times.
The flaming chalice was not always the iconic symbol of UUism. It came into being at least twenty years before Unitarians joined forces with Universalists to become the religious movement we are today, and it took 20 more years to become the symbol by which we are identified.
The flaming chalice design was the creative idea of an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch, in 1941. Deutsch had been living in Paris but ran afoul of Nazi authorities for his critical cartoons of Adolf Hitler. When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, he fled, with an altered passport, into Portugal where he met the Rev. Charles Joy, who was the director of the Unitarian Service Committee.
The Service Committee had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, among them Unitarians as well as Jews and homosexuals, people who needed to escape Nazi persecution. From Lisbon, Rev. Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents.
Deutsch was impressed by the work of the Service Committee and wrote to Rev. 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.”
The USC (Unitarian Service Committee) was an unknown entity in 1941, which was a huge disadvantage in wartime, when 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 how refugees found freedom in those days.
So Rev. Joy asked Hans Deutsch to create a symbol for the USC’s papers, as he said, “to make them look official, to give dignity and importance to them, and at the same time to symbolize 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.”
So Hans Deutsch drew a simple design, and Rev. Joy wrote to his colleagues in Boston that it was “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…”
Joy noted that the chalice suggests, to some extent, a cross, and he emphasized that for Christians the cross represents its central theme of sacrificial love.
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 and of the humanitarian call to action by people of faith who were willing to risk all for others in a time of urgent need.
Every Sunday UUs all over the world light the chalice as a time-honored ritual---in huge congregations and tiny ones, big historical sanctuaries, rented strip mall spaces, and even home living rooms.
I’m wondering---what does lighting the chalice mean to you all, when we kindle this flame at the beginning of our service time? Let’s pause for a time of silence while we consider this question. And then we’ll take a few moments to share our thoughts. I know that folks who are newer to UUism may have a different perspective than longer-time UUs. All perspectives are valued.
What does our lighting of the chalice say to you? How do you see it? (cong resp)
I’ve listened to many people reveal what the lighting of the flame means to them, at the beginning of our service or at a gathering of some sort. The chalice lighting is often preceded by words of dedication or poetry or the wisdom of some sage, chosen to focus on the event beginning, whether that is a time of reflection, of memorializing, of honoring, or other sacred work.
The lighting of the chalice signifies, to many, the moment at which we move into another realm, into a sacred time, into a time in which we consider matters of worth and value, a time in which we find wisdom and strength, a time of being together in community.
It focuses our attention on the work at hand, when we light the chalice before a board or committee meeting, and it reminds us that the work of the religious community is sacred work.
I used these words last Sunday as I lit the chalice in the Whidbey Island sanctuary: The chalice holds a flame during our times together. For us, the flame stands for all that we hold dear and keep burning in our hearts: devotion to truth, gratitude for blessings, humility in the face of our limitations and folly, courage and compassion, and the generosity of spirit it is always ours to exercise. We gather on Sundays to nurture our understanding of who we are and what we may become. These words were followed by an invitation to join in a collective response: “May Love reign among us here, in this hour of community.” (adapted from Alice Blair Wesley)
Now let’s think about the possible meanings of combining the vessel of the chalice with the living, breathing flame. Here is a container for nourishment—the chalice---and here is an ever-changing, comforting yet dangerous element---the flame. What spiritual significance might be found in this juxtaposition of these two disparate element? (place lit candle in chalice) Let’s think about this idea. (chime, silence, chime) What are your thoughts? (cong resp)
Not long ago, our UU ministers’ email chatline considered the significance of the flaming chalice and how that meaning has developed in our own understandings since the custom began, sometime in the 80’s, introduced by the youth’s and women’s caucuses at a long-ago General Assembly, when youth and women were beginning to have a profound effect on the direction of UUism.
You have named some of the very things they named. Here are some of their thoughts: the chalice is a container for the holy; the chalice signifies openhearted community where all are welcome; the chalice is a poetic, visual metaphor for community; the chalice bowl is deep and wide, big enough to contain many paths and ideas, hopes, and intentions.
Some of the ministers said that to them, the flame is a conduit to the transcendent, ever-changing, alive, untouchable, dangerous. It can tempt and also heal. The flame is a symbol of spiritual transformation; it reminds us of the ancient fires of sacrifice. It is a light in the darkness, bringing change, creation, and rebirth. It is a purifying element.
The flaming chalice, as our symbol of UUism, came into being at a time of great global turmoil. The forces of oppression and tyranny were strong across the earth. Few were able to withstand and survive that assault, but underground, beneath the surface, there was constant clandestine activity by those who resisted, those who dedicated themselves to saving others who were in danger, regardless of the personal cost.
Interestingly, a chalice design similar to our original design by Hans Deutsch mysteriously appears on the cover of a book entitled “The Ideal Gay Man: the Story of Der Kreis” or the story of “The Circle”, the international gay literary journal published from 1932-67. Except for a slight difference in the curve of the flame, the two drawings might be the same. Did Deutsch draw both symbols? I don’t know, but I find it intriguing that UUs were one of the first religions t advocates for gay and lesbian civil rights, including marriage.
For me, the significance of a chalice and a flame adorning official-looking documents enabling refugees to leave Nazi Germany and serving as the symbol of a journal which published gay European writers---that’s more than just interesting.
It makes me ask, what does the flaming chalice stand for? And what might it challenge us to do? Let’s take another time of silence to think about this symbol and its challenge. (cong. resp)
Many songs in pop culture reveal our human desire for passion and commitment in our lives by invoking the image of a flame: “Come on baby, light my fire” and “Ring of Fire” are classics in the country rock world, making no secret of the heat of passion that drives us mammals to find each other and make new mammals.
But passion drives us in many ways, not just sexually, and it is this passion for action that the flame of the chalice expresses to me. Your thoughts just now seem to reflect your desire for passion, for fire in your lives as well as the comfort of the sacred space we create with our community.
During this church year, we have gotten all fired up about social justice work and have begun to work actively to support the environment as well as to reach out to the needy in our community. Thanks to the passion and energy of several of our newer members, we’re looking at how we can make a real difference in our larger communities.
We’re looking at how we can better serve the needs of our children and adults, find more space for our expanding congregation, and make social responsibility work a centerpiece of congregational life, so that our neighbors and friends in the Columbia/Pacific region may be able to live lives that are healthy, safe, and happy, at least in part because of what we can offer.
We may talk about aligning with other congregations and groups to improve housing for those who are homeless, who perhaps live in the woods in tents in the rain or in vans in isolated parking lots and tiny waysides. We may find ways to support local warming centers and food banks.
I like the symbolism of our congregation, our sanctuary, being a sort of chalice, a community that is safe, healing, and nourishing, welcoming all into its circle. I like the symbolism of our passion to help our community being the flame set inside the chalice, warming us, inspiring us, moving us to action.
I like to think of the lighting of our chalice on Sundays and other times as a visual and heartfelt reminder that we are together in love and commitment, safe within these walls but eager and ready to move out into the community to be of service to those who need us.
And I like to think that each of us embodies the message of the chalice, that each of us can be that safe haven, that healing presence, that source of nourishment to those we meet on life’s path. And each of us can offer the passion nourished within these walls to those beyond these walls.
As one of my heroes, the late Dag Hammersjold, once famously wrote: “Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being, to receive, to carry, and to give back.”
Let’s pause once more for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
CLOSING HYMN #118, This Little Light of Mine
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we carry within us the same fire that lights our chalice flame. May we carry our passion and fire into our daily lives, committed to doing whatever we can to serve our neighbors and friends as we live out the symbol of our flaming chalice. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.