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Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The golden chalice.

Head on over to Beliefnet for a discussion of Stupid UU Tricks — i.e., goofy things Unitarian Universalists do while taking themselves way too seriously. Here's part of the opening entry about the ubiquitous flaming chalice:

The way many UUs treat the chalice symbol smacks to me of idolatry, like the phony Golden Calf that Aaron made while Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. Other denominations don't make a fetish of their logos the way we do of ours. You won't find Jews ceremonially venerating their Star of David, or Presbyterians their cross-and-dove, or Methodists their cross-and-flame, or UCCers their cross-and-orb, or Episcopalians their coat of arms, the way we do with our chalice. . . .

I could name other UU habits that may have been meaningful in their original context but have become embarrassingly banal through overly lazy acceptance. (The Water Ceremony and Flower Communion spring to mind.) To my way of thinking, such practices ignore the valuable Humanist warning against "idolatries of the mind and spirit", which I understand to warn not so much against any specific supernatural religious beliefs in particular as against irresponsible gullibility in general.

Two things: Is it true, as the writer says elsewhere in his post, that the liturgical chalice — the one we "light" — really grew out of a logo design? Yes, it is.

But what about the Jan Hus martyrdom story? There's a dispute about whether our symbol owes anything historically to the Hussite symbol. Apart from UU sources, I can't find a reference to a Hussite chalice with a flame, and there's no evidence I've seen that links Hans Deutsch's logo for the Unitarian Service Committee (c.1941) to Hus or to a tradition that derives from the Hussites. Which isn't to say that I don't like the Hus story much better, because I'm rather fond of it.

Full disclosure: I don't personally find much meaning in the "flaming chalice." It strikes me as a symbol in a vacuum, attracting disproportionate attention because we were rather too effective at jettisoning symbolism before we realized, "Hey, we need some of that!" I attend two churches (one in the city, one in the suburbs). We only "light the chalice" at one, and in my mind the value there has to do with our repetition of the same responsive reading week to week, but the text we use has always struck me as vacuous. At King's Chapel, on the other hand, there's no shortage of liturgy or symbolism, so igniting a candle in a dish would be superfluous. When I was editing the WorshipWeb, I managed to find some pretty good readings to accompany the lighting of a chalice, however.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 28 October 2003 at 7:12 PM

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October 28, 2003 08:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

Closet Episcopalian.

Richard Hurst:

October 28, 2003 10:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Perhaps it doesn't matter whether or not the designer had Jan Hus in mind. Perhaps part of the acceptance of the chalice as a symbol is that it is a hidden symbol of Christianity and has some connection to a Christian rebel who has some resonance with us. That's part of its popularity, even if historically it's not why it was designed that way.

I suspect that had the designer fashioned something that looked like, say, a crescent ... the mere fact it had been designed for the Unitarian Service Committee would not have been enough to make it a widespread symbol with real popularity.

I like the flaming chalice as a symbol (particularly the "official" vesion on stationery, with the shallow bowl, stylized cross and circular enclosure that suggests Universalist origins). Chalice lightening ... does seem phoney to mean, though. But I'm glad people have occasion to think about liturgy and whatnot when engaging in the practice.

Scott Wells:

October 28, 2003 10:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

As wicked as it might be, I saw the forest fire picture at and thought, "Does anyone else think it looks like the top of a flaming chalice?" (Down to the two middle firefighters framing the stem and base.)

God help us all if someone saw the photo and thought there was a resemblence and then put it on the website.


October 28, 2003 10:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

Actually, Melanie, I think of it as Unipalianism. I remain convinced (completely without evidence) that it's about to sweep the nation. ;)

Richard, I'm with you. The resonances in the logo have made a difference to me, and have provided a hook for the Christian humanist themes that matter to my religious life, for the very reasons you identify.

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