THE FLAMING CHALICE: What it means to Unitarian Universalists
August 14, 2011
Rev. Kit Ketcham
Hey, remember our teenage years 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:
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 also may shrink from 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. 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 the destructive nature of fire upon homes, forests and, property, and we also marvel at its regenerative powers when the ravaged forest begins to bloom again.
A cup, too, a goblet, a container for lifegiving substances, 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 silver goblets to beer steins and even pasta bowls.
All of these gifts are intended to hold something we value---our morning cup of tea, a celebratory glass of champagne, 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 champagne goblets high and drink a toast to the bond between newlyweds. We look at the intricate designs on that authentic German beer stein and marvel at the colors and figures on its surface. 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 committee gatherings. And I’m going to ask you for your thoughts a few times to be shared during our social time.
The flaming chalice was not always our 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 our symbol.
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 (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 (person) out of jail, give (them) 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…”
And for all of us who have a little case of cross cringe when we see one, Rev. 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. So you can tuck that information away in your thesaurus of religious words you don’t really have to be disgusted by. We UUs do sacrificial love all the time, with our families, our friends, and our faith community, to say nothing of our social justice efforts.
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. And now, by the magic of technology, in Zoom services as well.
I’m wondering----what does lighting the chalice mean to you all, when we kindle this flame at the beginning of our worship time? During our social time after the service, we’ll have a chance to share our thoughts.
The chalice lighting is often preceded by words of dedication or poetry or the wisdom of some sage, carefully chosen to focus on the event beginning, whether that is a time of worship, of memorializing, of honoring, or doing 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 in the act 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.
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 elements? Let’s think about this idea. And during social time, we’ll share our thoughts.
A couple of years 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 huge effect on the direction of Unitarian Universalism.
Here are some of their thoughts: the chalice is a container for the holy. The chalice signifies open-hearted community where all are welcome. The chalice is a poetic, visual metaphor for community. In dreamwork it indicates a need for spiritual nourishment. The chalice bowl is deep and wide, big enough to contain many paths and ideas, hopes and intentions.
The flame is a conduit to the transcendent. It is ever-changing, alive, untouchable, dangerous; it can tempt and it can also heal. The flame is a symbol of spiritual transformation; it reminds us of the sacrificial flame of antiquity. It is a light in the darkness. It brings change, creation, rebirth. It is a cauterizing, purifying element.
The flaming chalice, as our iconic 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 1932-1967. Except for a slight difference in the curve of the flame, the two drawings might be the same thing. Did Deutsch draw both symbols? I can’t say for sure and am not willing to pay over $100 for this out of print book! Though I did get a peek at it when a colleague gave me a link to a Google document of the book.
But the significance of a chalice and a flame adorning official-looking documents enabling refugees to leave Nazi Germany and serving as the symbol of an underground journal which published gay European writers-----that’s interesting. Not only interesting, but compelling.
It makes me ask, what does the flaming chalice stand for? And what might it challenge us to do? Let’s think about this symbol and its challenge. And we can talk about it a bit during social time.
In the songs today, the flame’s reputation for passion and intensity comes through, hot, ardent, eager. Also steamy! 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.
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 also may reflect your desire for passion, for fire in your lives as well as the comfort of the sacred space we create with our Beloved Community.
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 before our meetings 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 each of us embodies the message of the chalice; 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, and Veja repeated these words earlier: “Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back.”
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
Our closing song is Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”.
EXTINGUISHING THE CHALICE
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.