Why the Chalice Burns
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 13, 2002
It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words.
It could also be said in a church setting that a symbol is worth a thousand sermons-- at least.
“We live and inhabit symbols,” wrote Emerson. “All things are symbols.”
Every worldly object is dripping with the deeper meanings of its context—its history—its deeper story and relationship.
As Suzelle Lynch has written:
Indeed, we even think in pictures—in images, in symbols.
Those involved in commercial marketing, of course, understand the power of images completely—too well. That’s why today most advertising has less and less to do with the merits of the product being hawked, and more and more with incisive symbols, pithy images, which carve their way into our psyches, and which, with enough repetition, actually push out our own direct experience and inclinations and desires, and make us want a certain product. This is why some scientists believe that excessive television viewing is so dangerous to our neurological and psychological well-being. The images it brings into our homes, and into our minds—even if they’re fictionalized-- actually come to affect the way we see the world and live our lives.
It is this strong visual sense which makes religious symbols so powerful for us. As one writer has put it: “A symbol is a kind of image that is densely packed with meaning, an image that refers to a larger universe of meaning.” As religious scholar Mircea Eliade wrote, symbols and images are the very substance of the spiritual life; they are the bridge between the world as we experience it and its inner meaning.
A symbol is a bridge—connecting us with our tradition, our history, and our higher aspirations.
The primary symbol of our Unitarian Universalist faith is, of course, the Flaming Chalice, which, as you might imagine, has a colorful and interesting history all its own. But it is not an exceptionally long history: the Flaming Chalice has only been around about sixty years, which is not even a blink of an eye as far as religious matter go. Its wide-scale use within our congregations goes back only about twenty years or so, which is not very long ago, at all! But the Flaming Chalice does have religious antecedents—a history and heritage of its own—which extend back immemorially.
Of course, its primal element—the flame—fire—is a powerful religious symbol. To the ancient Greeks, it symbolized the Light of Truth; to the early Christians, it was the symbol of the Holy Spirit. There is also the flame of the burning bush in Judaism; the Supreme Lord of Wisdom in the Zoroastrian tradition (out of which many of our Christian images flow) was depicted as a burning flame. Fire is used for purification and sacrifice in many ancient traditions. Likewise, in Eastern traditions—among them Hinduism and Buddhism—flame is used to symbolized the presence of the Holy. Through the ages, fire has come to be connected in our minds with the light of freedom (think of the torch of the Statue of Liberty)—or the light of learning—the light of wisdom—en-light-en-ment.
Likewise, the chalice—the cup of sharing—is a symbol rich with ancient meanings. In Christianity, it was a symbol of communion, the cup of the Last Supper—the Holy Grail. The cup of Elijah is central to the Passover seder in Judaism. The chalice also carries associations with pre-Christian goddess worship as a symbol for fertility, abundance, and creativity.
In our liberal religious tradition, these two ancient symbols—flame and chalice—were originally brought together by an Austrian cartoonist named Hans Deutsch in 1941 (not exactly ancient times, as I said). Deutsch was a leftwing political cartoonist who had left Austria after the Anschluss—the forcible takeover of that country by Germany in 1938. He had settled in Paris, but when the Nazis took over France in 1940, certain unflattering cartoons Deutsch had drawn of Adolf Hitler made him a marked man. So, Deutsch fled to Portugal, and there he met Rev. Charles Joy, director of the Unitarian Service Committee, which had been formed just a few years before to assist those in Europe seeking to escape Nazi persecution. From his headquarters in Lisbon, Joy and his wife, Martha, oversaw a network of secret agents and couriers, whose job it was to ferret those in need—mostly Eastern European Jews—out of Europe and to safety in America.
Joy believe that his organization needed a symbol—a logo we’d call it today—that would be easily identifiable in the chaos that was then raging in war-torn Europe. He asked Deutsch to create a logo for the Service Committee’s stationery, for their papers, “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 might keep a man out of jail, give him standing with government and police, it is important that it look important,” Joy wrote to Deutsch.
The “important looking” symbol Deutsch came up with was the Flaming Chalice. Sitting at his desk in Lisbon, he drew with pen and ink a simple cup, a chalice, “of the kind the Greeks or Romans might put on their altars,” he wrote later. Atop the cup, he drew a flame—“the holy oil burning in the chalice is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice,” he wrote—the most admirable characteristics he saw in the work that the Sharps and the Unitarian Service Committee was doing amidst the ravages and dangers of war. “There is something that urges me to tell you,” Deutsch later wrote to Joy, “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.”
In selecting the flame and the chalice as his symbols, Deutsch may also have had the example of the 14th century Bohemian radical, Jan Hus in mind. Hus was born to a poor family in the village of Huscinez in central Bohemia, today the Czech Republic, in the year 1401. He was a bright boy, who soon became enthralled by matters religious, so decided at early age that the priesthood would be his calling. “I chose the office of priest,” he wrote a friend while in seminary, “because I have in mind a safe shelter, and goodly apparel, and a comfortable living.”
Hus made it through seminary easily; he was ordained to the priesthood, and he was named rector of the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, where he was a popular and powerful preacher.
But then, Hus’s outspokenness got him into trouble. He began to gravitate closer and closer to the disgraced theological views of the reformer John Wycliffe, who had attacked the infallibility of the Pope and the authority of the institutional Church, and had taught that the Bible—and the Bible alone—was the final authority for the Christian faith.
Wycliffe had also preached in the vernacular, and not in Latin; he had even translated the Bible into English, in violation of the Pope’s command. Soon, Hus, too, was preaching in his vernacular—Czech—and not in Latin. He translated the Bible into Czech, as well, so that the common people could understand its words. He preached about everyday life events, too—the politics of the day, things that really mattered in people’s lives—and not just matters of theology. “If God intended Himself to be revealed through Latin theology,” Hus said, “we all would have been born with doctoral degrees.”
Like Wycliffe, too, Hus began offering the communion cup to all believers, and not merely reserving it for the priests, as the Church had done for centuries. The cup of communion, Hus taught, was the living symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus—a sacrifice shared by all who shared the Christian faith.
Soon, Church authorities grew alarmed at Hus’s growing influence over the Church in Bohemia. In 1410, several of his books were banned on the grounds of heresy and Hus was excommunicated. The city of Prague was placed under a papal interdict. In 1415, Hus was promised safe passage if he would leave Bohemia and come to a Church council in Constance in Germany. When he arrived in Costance, however, Hus was arrested, thrown in prison, put on trial before an ecclesiastical court, and sentenced to be burned at the stake for the crime of heresy.
As he was tied to the post and the flames of death were lit, Hus is said to have made a pun on his name—Hus—which is very close to the word for goose in Czech—husa. “Today you may roast this goose,” Hus said, “but out of its ashes will be born a swan whose song you will never be able to silence.”
And Jan Hus was right. Within a few years, Hussites throughout Bohemia would launch a rebellion against the Catholic Church which would rage for a hundred years. Within a century, Luther and others would launch a Protestant Reformation which would remake the religious face of the world. Soon, too, movements for religious liberty and Enlightenment would sweep through Western civilization. Freedom would become a song which could never be silenced.
Some of the followers of Jan Hus, in the years after his execution, chose as their symbol a chalice with a flame—the shared cup of their faith burning brightly with the sacrificial oil martyred prophet. Truth was a flame which could never be extinguished.
That light still shone, perhaps subliminally, in the religious imagination of Hans Deutsch as he sat at this desk in Lisbon in 1940, wanting to do a favor for his friend, Charles Joy—wanting to come up with a symbol that would capture something of the spirit of these Unitarians in Europe—far from home, there to help, help, help.
So Deutsch he drew a chalice of sharing, topped with the flame of truth. Interestingly, the Flaming Chalice was not created based on theology. Deutsch wasn’t a Christian; he wasn’t even a Unitarian, really. He had never been to a Unitarian church, or heard a Unitarian or Universalist sermon. What he had seen was faith in action-- people who tried to live out their ideals by risking all for others at their time of greatest need.
The Flaming Chalice is a symbol about deeds and not about creeds.
After the Second World War, it remained the symbol of the Unitarian Service Committee. When the Unitarian and Universalist denominations merged in 1961, it became the symbol of the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Service Committee—though not, interestingly, of the Unitarian Universalist Association itself.
Rather, the Association chose a rather minimalist symbol of two intersecting circles (a Venn diagram, really), representing the coming together of our two inclusive faiths. In some Universalist tradition churches (like ours) the off-center cross of Universalism remained in use: the cross, symbolizing our Christian tradition, as but one symbol along the way of an ever-expanding religious universe. But there were no chalices anywhere, except at events of the UU Service Committee.
Then, at one of our General Assemblies in the early 1980s, the Rev. David Pohl, then Director of the UUA’s Department of Ministry, decided to light a chalice at the start of the Service of the Living Tradition—the annual service at General Assembly which memorialize ministers who have died during the previous year, which celebrates those who are retiring, and which welcomes those who are just entering the ministry. Soon, people who had attended G.A. were starting to bring the tradition back to their home churches—and slowly, church by church (because each of us is independent and self-governed, as we know so well), the habit spread, and soon—voila!—just about every UU church across the continent now lights a chalice at the start of its worship service.
(It’s interesting to think of what a new tradition this is: I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church, and we never lit a Flaming Chalice. The first church I served as a minister—in Hartland, Vermont, in the early 1980s—didn’t have a Flaming Chalice, either I bet many of you here this morning can probably remember when the Flaming Chalice first came to First Parish in Stoughton, sometime during the tenure of my esteemed colleague, Bruce Clary.)
The UUA only adopted the Flaming Chalice as its official symbol in the mid-1980s. Originally, the symbol the UUA adopted tried to echo the more-traditional Universalist off-center cross: a single circle, with the chalice off to the left. Then, graphic designers got involved, and for some reason, the chalice was moved to the right (as did our our denomination in some ways, but maybe I’m reading a little too much into a symbol here!).
But even though most UU churches today have Flaming Chalices, there is no “official UUA party line” on what this new/old symbol of ours is supposed to mean.
But yet, it is a symbol which many of us Unitarian Universalists find strangely powerful and comforting. As one of our co-religionists has written:
Is it a flame of truth or a flame of love? You decide.
Is it a chalice of community or a chalice of sacrifice? You decide.
There is no offical answer to these questions. “For faith makes us and not we it, and faith makes its own forms,” Emerson wrote. And any symbol, however powerful, has no hidden or magical power in and of itself. Our lives shape the meanings our symbols will contain. Whether our Flaming Chalice here this morning is just a piece of metal, or whether it will stand for something more, something deeper, is up to us. It is the power of our lives, truly, which lights the flame-- just as the lives of those blessed souls who have come before us have imbued this symbol with a richness and an integrity which shall long transcend this particular time and place.
From their hands, we accept this precious, life-giving cup.
In their eyes burned this immortal, divine fire. May it burn in ours, as well.