The Chalice Story

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Adapted from the pamphlet “The Flaming Chalice” by Daniel D. Hotchkiss.

The UU symbol: The Flaming Chalice

At the opening of Unitarian Universalist worship 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 in worship and symbolizes the spirit of our work.

The chalice and the flame were brought together as a Unitarian symbol by an Austrian artist, Hans Deutsch, in 1941. He drew critical cartoons of Adolf Hitler while he lived in Paris and fled eventually to Portugal when the Nazis invaded.

There, he met the Reverend Charles Joy, executive director of the Unitarian Service Committee (USC). The Service Committee was new, founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans who needed to escape Nazi persecution. From his Lisbon headquarters, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents.

Charles Joy felt that this new, unknown organization needed some visual image to represent Unitarianism to the world, especially when dealing with government agencies abroad.

Deutsch was most impressed and soon was working for the USC. He later wrote to Joy:

I admire your utter self denial, readiness to serve, to sacrifice all, your time, your health, your well being, to help, help, help. The way you live your lives – your religion ceases to be magic and becomes practical philosophy and social work. In that way I’m a believer.

The USC was an unknown organization in 1941. Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol 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 their work during the time of Nazi persecution.... When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.

Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to the USC and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism. With pencil and ink he drew a chalice with a flame. Joy said it was 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. This was in the mind of the artist.

Joy also interpreted the chalice as remotely suggesting a cross although it did not limit their work to Christians. The cross does symbolize Christianity and 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.

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 Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Association. Officially or unofficially, it functions as a logo for hundreds of congregations. It has become a focal point for worship. 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.