UU History – The Flaming Chalice: Part 1

(by Susan J. Ritchie)

PART 1:  The flaming chalice is the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. Most Unitarian Universalist congregations begin their worship on Sunday mornings by lighting one in the form of a lamp or candle.cradled within a wide-lipped vessel. But you will also find them out in the world, sometimes as three-dimensional objects, sometimes as two-dimensional artistic renderings. Many people wear chalice jewelry, some as a cue to prompt others to ask about Unitarian Universalism, some as a reminder to make their actions reflect their highest values. And some people mark their faith boldly with a chalice tattoo.

At its most literal level of meaning, the flaming chalice signals Unitarian Universalist identity. But it has other registers of meaning as well. It suggests the transformations that take place when we are held within religious community. When we light the chalice in worship, we illuminate a world that we feel called upon to serve with love and a sense of justice. The flame is what one of our beloved congregational hymns terms “The Fire of Commitment.”

Thus you will see the flaming chalice on stoles and banners at demonstrations against injustice. We also often light the chalice whenever we gather, be it at worship services, committee meetings, or board retreats. We appreciate the reminder that even the most basic work serves the larger mission.

In its setting in worship, lighting the chalice signals the entry of the gathered community into a sacred space. As a minister, when I light the flame, I like to think of the thousand or more congregations doing so at the same time. This helps me to enter the spirit of worship, which is intended to break down apparent barriers of time and place so that we, the congregation, can establish larger connections to the sacred, and to all other people of liberal religious faith who are gathering in the present, have gathered in the past, and will gather in the future. The rhythms and concerns of our everyday life remain, but they come to be held in a much larger context.

Sometimes readings or other words are used to connect the lighting of the chalice to the theme of worship, and often, the lighting of the chalice accompanies the reading of a congregation’s covenant. Our church covenants are the promises we make to each other that hold us together, across a diversity of beliefs, in our shared commitment to each other. The cup of the chalice is like the cradle that holds us in covenant.

Many congregations extinguish their chalice at the close of worship, sometimes with a reminder that those who have gathered together now carry the warmth of human community and the light of truth with them throughout the week. The fire is not so much extinguished as borne in the heart of each person, a new expression of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “divine spark”—the manifestation of divine possibility within each human soul.

Part 2 next week

Thank you to Vicki Clabaugh and Kate O’Hare for curating this for us each week!