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Flame of Learning, Chalice of Love

Janeen Grohsmeyer

(Light a chalice, if there isn't already one lit, and have some matches at hand.)

Have you ever watched a candle burn?

(Lean forward to impart the secret.)

The fire is alive.

Watch it! It moves. It flickers. It dances on the wind. It changes with every breath of air. (Demonstrate this.)

Fire is alive. It is born. It grows. And it dies.

(Blow out candle.)

But fire is special. It can live again and again.

(Relight candle and reverently set the chalice someplace where participants can see it.)

People have always known that fire was special. Long, long ago, before people made matches or candles or even made houses, people knew that fire was special. There was the great fire in the sky, the sun, which made the earth warm and made night into day. And there were the smaller fires that people made, fires that cooked their food, and kept them warm, and brought them light.

People honored the fires, because fire was special. Fire was more than human.

Fire has power. It can create, and it can destroy. It can bring light, and it can burn. It can create, and it can destroy. Fire can be wonderful, and fire can be terrible. We have to be careful with fire.

And so, people thought that fire was something sacred and holy. Some people even worshiped fire, and said that fire was a deity, like a goddess or a god. Other people said fire wasn't actually the deity, but just meant that the deity was there.

No matter what they believed, people all over the world gave fire a special place in their religions. They had fires in their homes, of course, to cook food and keep warm, and they also had sacred fires in their temples. They set sacred lamps on their altars. They lit sacred bonfires outside on the hilltops and in the groves. They placed sacred torches near the graves of those who died.

We still do this today. In Washington, DC, near the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, burns an eternal flame that never goes out. In churches at Christmas time, many Christians light four candles on an Advent wreath. During the eight days of Hanukkah, Jews light the eight candles of the menorah. At Diwali, Hindus set small lamps all around the house.

And when Unitarian Universalists gather, we light a chalice. This is our sacred fire. The flame gives light and warmth, just like all fires. It's also a symbol, something we use to represent the light of learning.

The chalice is a symbol, too. A chalice is really just a big cup that you can drink from. When you're thirsty, the nicest thing someone can do is to give you something to drink. Giving a drink to someone is a way of welcoming them to your house. In a way, it means you're part of the same family, just like everyone here is part of the same family, the Unitarian Universalist family.

The picture of a flame in a chalice was first drawn by a man named Hans Deutsch during World War II for the Unitarian Service Committee. This was before your parents were born. During the war, the committee needed a symbol to show refugees from many different countries that they were there to help them. When refugees saw the picture of the flame in the chalice, it didn’t matter what language they spoke. They understood that the symbol stood for help. Unitarian Universalists started to use the flaming chalice in their worship services after that.

Just like the sacred fires, people have used chalices in their religions for thousands and thousands of years. Long ago, the Greeks and Romans put wine in their chalices. Other people have put water or blood or milk, or even melted butter in their chalices. The Celts believed that drinking from the cauldron of the Goddess Ceirdwyn would bring people back to life. Jesus shared a cup of wine with his friends. Many Christians still do this in religious celebrations today.

We Unitarian Universalists don't drink from our chalice. Instead, we use it to hold the flame. The circle of the chalice helps keep the fire small. The flame doesn't blind us. It doesn't burn us. It gives us light, so we can see all the different things in the universe. Even the invisible ones, because the Unitarian Universalist flame is a light of learning.

The circle of our family keeps us warm, both our family at home and our Unitarian Universalist family. We help each other, and we share food and drink with each other, and we take care of each other, because that's what families are supposed to do. And we invite everyone to come be a part of our family, because the Unitarian Universalist chalice is a chalice of love.

The flaming chalice is a symbol of learning and of love. It's our symbol, the symbol of Unitarian Universalism.

For more information contact web@uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Friday, May 17, 2013.

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