If you were to visit of church of my denomination you would probably encounter a symbol you might find puzzling. The symbol is of a chalice, surmounted by a flame. Here is an example:
Through years of use, the Flaming Chalice has become an informal symbol of the Unitarian Universalist form of Protestantism. As we are a tradition that does not do a lot with symbols, we make the most of the few we have. Therefore, you will often see a Flaming Chalice displayed in our congregations. Some congregations begin worship by symbolically lighting the chalice, and many members wear the symbol as jewelry or display it in their homes.
Lindsay and I do this too. Whenever either of us leads worship we wear Flaming Chalice jewelry, We have a light gatherer of stained glass hanging in our front window that displays this symbol, and we have a sculpture of a Flaming Chalice made of cobalt blue glass on our dining room table most of the time. Both of our churches have Flaming Chalices in the sanctuary. At Countryside Church in Palatine we have a bronze sculpture, while at the Geneva Church my wife’s congregation uses one made of olive wood from Jerusalem set on a glass base that contains a copy of the church’s historic membership book.
The big problem with this symbol is that you sort of have to be a member of the club to know what it is. No matter how the artist tried to make it look majestic, a flaming chalice sculpture does look a bit strange. Those of us who keep one around get used to answering the question, “Why is there a candle in your candy dish?”
For anyone interested, here’s the tale:
In the late 1300s a man named Jon Hus was ordained as a Catholic priest in what is now called Hungary but was then called Transylvania. In 1401 he was appointed as the Rector of his school. However, with time he came to believe that reform was needed in the church. Anticipating the Protestant Reformation by more than a century he began to hold services in common language instead of Latin, and when he offered his congregation communion he offered not only the bread, but gave the chalice of wine too.
Not surprisingly, he came to a bad end. He was tried for heresy and burned at the stake by civil and church authorities. However his followers kept his memory going by devising a symbol—the chalice of communion crowned by the flame of his martyrdom. To this day the Flaming Chalice is a symbol you can find in Eastern Europe.
Eventually, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church and the Protestant Reformation began. Christianity would never be the same. For the intellectual grounding of his thought Luther appealed to the work of Jon Hus, and the Flaming Chalice became a small part of Protestant Christianity.
Centuries pass. In 1941 a group of our church people formed themselves into the Unitarian Service Committee. They tried to help Eastern Europeans, among them both Unitarians and Jews, seeking to escape Nazi persecution. The Rev. Charles Joy, Executive Director of the Service Committee, ran a secret network of couriers and agents to do this from his office in Lisbon. He realized he needed a symbol that would let his operatives recognize each other. He asked an Austrian artist, Hans Deutsch, to help him design something.
Taking a page from Protestant history, Deutsch designed a cross-like chalice crowned by a flame. In his official explanation of the symbol, Joy wrote "the holy oil burning in the chalice is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice…The fact that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his [Deutsch’s] 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 the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love."
From that point it caught on among us.
I enjoy the symbol, although I sometimes think my fellow Unitarian Universalists get a bit carried away with it. It is not, after all, a sacred symbol. It’s more like a corporate logo. While I feel it has a role, some people regard it with a reverence that troubles me. Yet for all that it does have a place in my home, and that’s why there is a candle in my candy dish.