The Flaming Chalice

Adapted from an essay by Dan Hotchkiss

At the opening of Unitarian Universalist services, many congregations light a flame inside a chalice. This flaming chalice has become a well-known symbol of our denomination. It unites our members and symbolizes the spirit of our work.

The flaming chalice combines two archetypes—a drinking vessel and a flame—and as a religious symbol has different meanings to different beholders. In religions around the world and through time, a chalice symbolizes sharing, generosity, sustenance, and love. A flame has come to symbolize sacrifice, testing, courage, and illumination.

The chalice and the flame were brought together as a Unitarian symbol by an Austrian artist, Hans Deutsch, in 1941. After fleeing the Nazi aggression in Europe, Deutsch met Reverend Charles Joy, executive director of the Unitarian Service Committee (USC), in Portugal. From his Lisbon headquarters, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents to help all those fleeing religious persecution.

Deutsch was impressed with the work of the USC and later wrote to Joy saying “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.”  With pencil and ink Deutsch drew a chalice with a flame.

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 urgent need.

Today, the flaming chalice is the official symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Officially or unofficially, it functions as a logo for hundreds of congregations. No one meaning or interpretation is official. The flaming chalice, like our faith, stands open to receive new truths that pass the tests of reason, justice, and compassion.