STLT#362, Rise Up, O Flame

We have now entered (and rejoiced, and came in) a new phase in this practice – the short songs. The rounds, the doxologies, the introits, the chalice lightings, and the benedictions.

I have no idea how this section will feel. I admit that this morning it feels a little disappointing, as there’s not much to grab on to here. I worry that the spiritual practice will become thin because the songs are, and I wonder how sustaining this very different level of engagement will be. I may very well be falling into the loving, complex arms of Jason Shelton’s Morning Has Come on November 20, heaping loads of praises upon the return to hymn forms and loads of lyrics and page turns, not just the hymn I adore (spoiler alert).

But for now, we enter this time of short songs with this chalice lighting. The words are from an anonymous source, and the melody is by Praetorius.

Rise up, O flame,
by thy light glowing,
show to us beauty,
vision, and joy.

So… I never use words or music for lighting the chalice, because I think it draws attention from the lighting of the chalice. We have really just one symbol, one object, that binds Unitarian Universalists together, and it isn’t because the mothership told us to, but because the image of the chalice and the meaning of the chalice spread from congregation to congregation, from gathering to meeting to assembly, and organically it has become the one ritual object that features in – as far as I know – all UU congregations. The only object. (We can talk about all the other things that feature in our congregations at some point, like coffee, fake fights, and white people – but that’s outside the scope of this particular moment.)

To me, lighting a chalice with a song or spoken words emphasizes that which gets plenty of play throughout the rest of the service – words and music. But lighting the chalice in silence, with our attention on the flame, puts our intention into the flame and sets the space apart. It is a signal that this isn’t business – or busy-ness – as usual, but rather a time out of time. And whether our chalices are big metal masterpieces, like our GA chalice, or a small bowl with a candle, or somewhere in between, it is that moment of lighting our chalice that calls together a group of Unitarian Universalists into worship like no other.

And that deserves all the attention we can give it.

 

Image by Del Ramey, from First Unitarian – Louisville.

5 Comments

  1. This gives me a lot to ponder. I always use words, and favor ones that say something about the significance(s) of the chalice, because I’m thinking about newcomers who have never seen that ritual before and wonder why we do that. But what you write makes me realize that simply lighting the chalice in profound silence could be even more effective in drawing them in. Yes, they may wonder what it means and why we are doing that. But they can ask (just as, in my church that has a large madrone branch hanging on the wall behind the altar, the #1 visitor question is “What does the branch symbolize?”). And they can develop their own response to the ritual.

    You might have just changed everything.

  2. Hmmm, more to think about here… and I’m responsible for “the words” at a chalice lighting to take place next week at the UURMaPA conference in Attleboro, MA. The words might be silence.

    When I was in the parish, we had the congregation say “As we light our chalice flame, we call to mind and reaffirm one of the principles [or sources] of our free faith:…” [and then we’d say the principle or source that most closely matched the topic of the service that day]. We did this as the first ministers of a brand-new congregation, because they were so new to UU that we wanted them to learn (and “get”) the principles and sources.

    And while we’re on the topic, I’m curious to know if other ministers extinguished the chalice at the end of the service. We always did, saying something like “As I extinguish the chalice flame, I invite you to take in its light and warmth, carry them out into the world this week, and bring them back with you next Sunday to be rekindled in the light of community. Go in peace, return in love.”

    And BTW, it’s never “light the chalice” or “extinguish the chalice.” (It makes me crazy when I hear a colleague say that.) The chalice is not on fire — it’s the FLAME that you light or extinguish.

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