Religious symbolism can be a universal uniting force for people who share a faith but come from different cultures, nations and ethnicities. The Christian cross, Islam’s star and crescent, the Unitarian Universalist flaming chalice and Zen Buddhism’s incomplete circle are all instantly recognizable to members of these faiths. This week’s clergy discuss the meanings behind the symbolism.
The Rev. Ned Wight,
Interim senior minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Shelter Rock
The most powerful and widespread symbol of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) faith is a flaming chalice. It derives its power from two archetypes — a drinking cup and a flame — and from its historic origins. In 1941, staff of the newly organized Unitarian Service Committee were working in Europe, trying to help Jewish intellectuals and others at risk to escape Nazi-occupied countries. Needing an official symbol for passage documents, Austrian artist Hans Deutsch responded by designing the flaming chalice symbol. It incorporated a chalice, such as ancient Greeks and Romans put on their altars, and a flame, symbolizing sacrifice and service. His design was also in the shape of a cross, which some took to represent Unitarian theology’s roots in the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation. After the war, the Service Committee continued to use this symbol, and Unitarian congregations began to adopt the flaming chalice as their symbol, as well. When the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961, the flaming chalice symbol was encircled by two concentric rings representing these two traditions. Today, many UU congregations begin their services by lighting a chalice, symbolizing the light of reason, the flame of hope, the fire of commitment and the warmth of community. The UU chalice serves to remind us of our spiritual forebears, who served justice and freedom at great personal risk in Europe during World War II. It calls us all to follow their enlightened example, and to celebrate the transformational and unifying power of our faith.
Bob Yugi Festa of Huntington,
This is a more complex question than it seems because each of the Buddhist traditions will likely have a different, most powerful symbol. My tradition is Zen Buddhism and I would say the symbol that most represents our tradition is the incomplete circle as painted in the Japanese sumi-e form, which is ink brushed on rice paper. It represents the emptiness of all phenomena. This does not mean the phenomena is unreal or void of existence. It does mean phenomena are free of our concepts of them from the standpoint of our egocentric I or me outside of all other phenomena. Our sense that we are independent and permanent is because we are deluded about the true nature of reality, in which all phenomena are interdependent and impermanent. Our mental suffering is a result of our holding on to everything that supports our deluded world view, and of course in the end, no matter how hard we hold on, impermanence changes our lives and we suffer. Mental suffering encompasses a broad range of intensity from the relatively minor experience of not being able to find a desirable parking spot to the trauma of the death of a loved one. It is only when we can see through this delusion and accept the reality of flux and fluidity that is in the end ungraspable and inconceivable that we can allow ourselves to be compassionate, courageous and clear about who we truly are.
Chaplain, Islamic Society Interfaith Center, Stony Brook University
The star and crescent are the best-known symbol of Islam, symbolizing the new moon, a new beginning. The symbol of the star and crescent was even used in the flags of the Ottoman Empire, and, later, many predominantly Muslim countries used it on their flags. The symbolism of the color green comes, for example, from a verse in the Qur’an: “Those who inhabit paradise will wear fine silk garments of green” (18:31), which, interpreted over the decades, became associated with Islam. The graves of Sufi saints are even cloaked with green cloth; this imbues the color with an ethereal meaning. In Islam, the word for God is Allah. It is not masculine, feminine or pluralistic. And, Allah has 99 attributes that Muslims reflect on as they use the prayer beads. Muslims pray in a protocol where there is complete spiritual and physical unison. They prostrate to their lord by placing their forehead on the ground in humility and complete surrender. The star and crescent when interwoven against an ethereal green fabric conjures a spiritual connection to the afterlife — communicating a new beginning. The star and crescent extend in meaning to imply a realm of paradise and purity — giving its original meaning of a “new beginning“ a holy tinge.