I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in August 2012, and the statistics gathered by WordPress tell me that it’s been viewed more than anything else I’ve posted, often as a result of somebody searching the Web for a phrase like “cross in a circle”. In that time, however, most of the links I had used for examples of flaming chalice symbols have stopped working, and this month the Fellowship is running a competition to create our own symbol, so I’m bringing back this post to show those examples. (I believe that they’ve been shared on-line for general use, but if that’s not the case, or if I have mis-attributed any of them, please let me know.)
In today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations it’s not hard to find chalices. They’re lit at the beginning of our Sunday services, just as we did this morning, but we also light chalices to open Religious Education classes, our Fellowship Circle sessions and even our committee meetings, where a chalice-lighting helps to remind us that we are not a social group or a debating club or a political party but a religious community. You’ll find flaming chalice symbols in print, on websites and made into jewelry. As shown in the gallery below, you’ll also find them in many different designs: enclosed in a circle or a sunburst; with a stylized flame or a realistic flame or a rainbow-colored flame; made up of letters that spell out a word or including a peace sign, a recycling logo or a question mark; recognizing the importance of reaching out to Unitarian Universalists who serve in our nation’s armed forces. Not only is the flaming chalice ubiquitous, a widely loved symbol of Unitarian Universalism, but lighting it is the single-most recognized ritual our faith embraces.
Now while the flaming chalice symbol goes back over seventy years, it’s only become a widely accepted part of our congregational life in the last twenty or thirty years. There were no chalice lightings in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the 1964 hymn book. The flaming chalice appeared for the first time on an official Unitarian Universalist Association document only in 1976. And our current hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition published in 1993, has only nine chalice lightings, but there are many more than that in use today. So, you can see that in the last couple of decades the flaming chalice has caught on in a really big way!
What’s more, as these various examples show, the chalice symbol is, more often than not, enclosed in some sort of circle, or sometimes two overlapping circles, which are usually taken to represent the coming together of Unitarianism and Universalism. This morning I’m going to reflect on the origins of these symbols — the chalice from Unitarianism and the circle from Universalism — as well as a third symbol that dropped out along the way.
Many of you have probably heard the story of the flaming chalice, but it’s a good story that bears repeating from time to time. This is how Unitarian Universalist minister Dan Hotchkiss tells that story:
The chalice and the flame were brought together to make a symbol for Unitarian use by an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch. Living in Paris during the 1930s, Deutsch drew political cartoons that were critical of Adolf Hitler, so when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, Deutsch abandoned all he had and fled. That was probably the right move! He went first to the south of France, and then he went to Spain. Finally, with an altered passport, Deutsch made it into Portugal, where Lisbon was the only open port remaining in Europe.
In Portugal, Deutsch met the Reverend Charles Joy, commissioner for Europe of the newly founded Unitarian Service Committee. The Service Committee — a forerunner of today’s Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, including Unitarians and Jews, as well as artists, intellectuals and dissidents, to escape Nazi persecution. From his headquarters in Lisbon, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents, helping to provide identification papers and travel documents that would allow refugees to escape to freedom.
Now Deutsch was most impressed with the work of the Unitarian Service Committee and was soon working for Joy. Deutsch had never seen a Unitarian — or, for that matter, a Universalist — church, but what he had seen was faith in action, with Joy and the other members of the Service Committee willing to risk everything for others in a time of urgent need. Deutsch wanted to help.
In 1940, the Unitarian Service Committee was an unknown organization. That put them at a disadvantage in the war-time environment, when establishing trust across barriers of language, nationality and faith would mean life instead of death. So Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for the papers issued by the Service Committee, to make them look official, dignifying them while also symbolizing the spirit of the work. Joy wrote, “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 Unitarian Service Committee and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism. With pencil and ink, he drew a chalice with a flame rising from it. The design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom. Reporting to Boston, Charles Joy wrote:
“It represents, as you see, […] 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. In ancient and medieval art this chalice is frequently found, and the design itself, modernized and stylized though it is, reminds one of the signs seen on the old monastic manuscripts. This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its 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.”
Let’s move from the Unitarian side of the story to the Universalist side.
Back in the United States in the 1940s, the Universalist Church of America was struggling with its religious identity. At stake was whether Universalism was genuinely a Christian denomination or whether it was (or should be) something more, something larger, something truly universal. In truth, the Universalist Church had struggled with its sense of identity for most of its existence, and had just been denied membership — twice — in the Federal Council of Churches: the council decided that the Universalists were, first, not sufficiently Christian and, second, too much like the Unitarians!
But into the mixture of voices calling, on the one hand, for a stronger Christian witness and, on the other, for a transformation of Universalism to a more truly universal religion, there came a new voice. It came from a small group of recent graduates of the Crane Theological School at Tufts University, and it proved to be a major force pushing the Universalist Church beyond Christianity.
The graduates took their name from a medieval religious order, the Humiliati. The name means “the humble ones”, though few people thought the members of this new order were particularly humble! The group was originally formed so that its members could continue to enjoy the friendship, intellectual stimulation and spiritual growth they had enjoyed as seminarians; they held annual retreats during the 1940s and 50s at which they discussed theology, worship and liturgy.
Committing themselves to the renewal of their denomination as a universalized Universalism, the Humiliati adopted the symbol of a small, off-center cross enclosed by a larger circle. The circle was intended to represent the all-embracing nature of Universalism; the off-center cross, of course, recognized Universalism’s Christian roots while at the same time implying that Christianity was no longer necessarily central to the faith. When the symbol first appeared at the ordination of one of the Humiliati, it created something of a stir; then another member of the group caused a bigger dispute when he insisted on being ordained to the Universalist ministry rather than to the Christian ministry. Although the Humiliati’s theological and liturgical innovations were by no means widely embraced, the idea of a universalized Universalism took hold and the symbol of the circle enclosing an off-center cross came to be widely used in Universalist churches.
It was at about the same time in the 1940s and 50s that the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association were once again talking about the possibility of combining their organizations and resources, a conversation that had been going, off and on, for almost a century. The Unitarians had worked through the humanist–theist controversy of the 1920s and 30s and now, thanks in no small part to the Humiliati, the Universalists were moving beyond an exclusively Christian orientation. The talks finally culminated, of course, in the legal consolidation that in 1961 formed the Unitarian Universalist Association. And, a couple of years after that, the Unitarian Service Committee and the Universalist Service Committee merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which continued to use the flaming chalice in its documents.
Like our faith itself, the flaming chalice symbol has evolved over time. Some years ago the UUA changed its logo to convey the idea of illumination emanating from the flame; more recently the UUSC changed its logo to hold the chalice in a pair of hands. More often, the placing of the Unitarian chalice within the Universalist circle is a starting point for all sorts of variations in design. As Charles Joy noted almost seventy years ago, the shape of the chalice can be suggestive of a cross, but in some designs the cross is more explicit. One painting, commissioned by First Unitarian in Albuquerque from New Mexico artist Robert P. Hooton, features a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right. Here together are the three symbols we’ve been considering: the chalice, the circle and the cross.
The flaming chalice combines two archetypes — a drinking cup and a flame — that have been used in religious symbolism for as long as there’s been such a thing as religion. From the wine cup of the Passover seder to the Holy Grail of medieval legend, the chalice represents community, sustenance, fertility. The flame is an even older symbol, of course, and soon we’ll be in that season featuring a number of holidays involving candles, in Advent wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras, where the flames represent hope, courage, witness. With this wealth of meanings, it’s perhaps not surprising that the flaming chalice caught on within Unitarian Universalism and that it’s become so near and dear to our hearts.
Now there’s a joke that tells of a Catholic church, a Baptist church and a Unitarian Universalist church next to one another; one stormy night there’s a lightning strike and soon all three churches are on fire. Some of the more dedicated church members risk their lives to save the church’s most prized possessions: the Catholics run in to save the communion host; the Baptists run in to save the Bible; and the UUs run in to save the coffee pot! But the very next thing most UUs would try to save would be the chalice.
(Our own chalice has its own story, of course, which also involves a church fire, but that’s a story for another time.)
For me, the flaming chalice represents the relationship between the individual and the community. The community holds the individual just as the chalice holds the flame, providing it with a home, a place to be, sheltering it from the winds that would extinguish it. The individual, on the other hand, illuminates the community, just as the flame illuminates the chalice, shining its light, sharing its wisdom and warming with its love. Last Sunday I introduced the word “autokoenony” from the Greek meaning “the self engaged in a group whose members have something in common”, and that describes what the flaming chalice represents to me. In this interpretation, in fact, it teach us two simple lessons: without the community, there would be no place for the individual to stand; and without the individual, the community would go without illumination.
Another archetypal symbol is the circle. With no beginning and no end, a circle goes on forever. What most of us think of as the traditional wedding ceremony includes the custom of exchanging rings as a sign of our hope — even in this day and age — for everlasting love. And yet a ring wouldn’t be a ring were it not for the empty space in the middle through which one’s finger passes, and a circle wouldn’t be a circle without the empty space in the center. If the circle, in the symbology we inherit from the Universalists, represents the universe of existence, then perhaps the empty space in the center represents the mystery at the heart of existence. We place our flaming chalice within the circle, but it doesn’t fill the circle: there’s still plenty of room for mystery.
And then we come to the cross. Many Unitarian Universalists have some difficulty accepting the cross as one of our religious symbols, I’ve noticed. Including it as just another symbol along with the Jewish Star of David, the Hindu Om, the Taoist Yin–Yang, and so on is okay, but most Unitarian Universalists would rather not focus on the cross, if we can help it. We might object to it on the grounds that the cross was, after all, an instrument of torture and death used by the Roman Empire against those it particularly despised. We might object to it on the grounds that the cross became a symbol justifying colonialism and oppression by Europeans against Africans and Native Americans. We might object to it on the grounds that the whole emphasis on the crucifixion came, in any case, from the Apostle Paul and doesn’t really have anything to do with the ethical teachings of the human Jesus.
Well, those are valid objections. However, there are two reasons why we ought to be okay with the cross as a symbol representing Christianity at its best. First, both Unitarianism and Universalism evolved out of “traditional” Christianity. As the Unitarian Universalist Association’s own Commission on Appraisal made clear:
“Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages. Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions and experiences. The Unitarian heritage has affirmed that we need not think alike to love alike and that God is one. The Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God. Contemporary Unitarian Universalists have reaped the benefits of a legacy of prophetic words and deeds.”
Second, given that heritage, we have a right to own the meanings of that heritage, to speak in favor of religion based on love rather than fear, to use the cross as a symbol for our purposes rather than let it be used against us. We may not subscribe to the theology it is usually taken to represent and we may object to its history as a tool of conquest and subjugation, but strip away the distinctly un-Christian abuses of the cross and trim back the elaborate mystification surrounding it, and what we find is a simple call to love and to be loved.
The chalice, the circle and the cross, in fact, are reminders to us of those who went before us in our faith. Let us remember those who were willing to risk everything, even their lives, to help others escape persecution. Let us remember those who advocated for a larger faith, embracing freedom of belief and service to the whole. And let us affirm our heritage in oneness and wholeness, carrying forward the symbols of our faith as we fill our lives with hope and courage, kindness and love.
So may it be.