A flame within a chalice (a cup with a stem and foot) is a primary symbol of the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. Many of our congregations kindle a flaming chalice in gatherings and worships and feature the chalice symbol prominently. We light a flaming chalice in worship to create a reverent space for reflection, prayer, meditation, and singing.

Jan Hus and the UU flaming chalice symbol

Rev. Sarah Oelberg, in her July 29, 2018 sermon, explained the history of the flaming chalice as the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. The following explanation of the chalice symbol is taken from her sermon.

Jan Hus, a theologian, philosopher and church reformer, was born in 1369 in what is now the Czech Republic, which was, and still is, a Catholic country. In 1401 he was ordained to the priesthood and preached at Bethlehem Chapel, the only church where preaching was done in the people’s language, rather than in Latin. Jan Hus spoke to the peoples’ concerns and was very popular. He was also a vocal critic of the Catholic church and preached against papal corruption and the wealth of the church — and so he was excommunicated and exiled.

Even in exile, his enemies continued to surveil him to gather evidence against him. His heresy? The church taught that the end of the world and the resurrection of the chosen were near, and that the chosen ones would be revealed then. Hus was teaching that the elect sons of god were recognizable here on earth by their goodness, and that these moral men, rather than kings and popes, should be the rulers. Hus also said the communion bread and wine didn’t change into actual body and blood of christ, but were merely symbolic — and also that both bread and wine should be given to the congregation at mass, not just to the priests. And he found evidence in the Bible to prove it.

Hus was convicted of heresy on July 6, 1415 and sentenced to death. He was forced to dress in his priestly vestments and was handed a communion chalice of wine. As the charges were read, his accusers grabbed the chalice from his hands with the words, “We take from thee the cup of redemption.” That is the source of our chalice: the cup of communion of fellowship for all people. Hus was burned at the stake with all his books, the first doctor of theology in European history to be martyred for his faith. As he burned, Hus cried out that he will fuel the fires of freedom forever.

Rev. Oelberg, concluded, “And so the flame joined the chalice and became the symbol of a great movement…The chalice of communion and respect for all people, and the flame of the death, but even more, of the life and the spirit and the thought of Jan Hus.” A statue of Hus is in the center of Prague’s large city square.

A UUA pamphlet says the chalice was created as the logo for the Unitarian Service Committee in 1948, but Rev. Oelberg notes the idea came well before then, adding that Theodore Parker, American Unitarian hero of the 19th century, ordered a flaming chalice carved on his gravestone.