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April 18, 2020

Having only recently experienced the last half of Lent and Holy Week sheltering in place, I have had time to meditate on the principal symbol of the Christian faith, the cross. It is an odd symbol when you think about it. Most of the world’s great religions use an object of beauty to identify their faith – the Star of David, the crescent moon, the lotus flower. Christians have chosen the cross, a cruel instrument of execution. A firing squad or lethal injection might just as well represent the faith. Instead of wearing a cross on a chain, we might wear the replica of a guillotine or an electric chair! Through death by crucifixion, the Romans devised a way to inflict severe pain and suffering upon the accused, falsely or not.  

For many Christians, there is a compelling beauty in the cross. It is a reminder of divine love. It is important to remember that the cross of Christ was not a brass decoration in the chancel of a church.   It was made of rough-hewn lumber adorned with thorns, splinters, nails, and bloodstains. George Bernard described it well in his hymn from 1912 as “an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame.” Many people of faith can say, in the words of Bernard, “So I’ll cherish the old rugged Cross.”

A few weeks before Easter, before the coronavirus required social distancing, Clare and I were going over our calendars together.

I mentioned the Holy Week services scheduled for the church where I now work. For Christians, the days of Holy Week commemorate the events of that pivotal week in the life of Jesus. On Palm Sunday, the children enter the Sanctuary waving palm fronds as the congregation sings a joyful hymn. On Maundy Thursday evening, we share communion remembering the last Passover meal Jesus observed with his disciples. On Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion of Jesus, we gather for a devotional time in the Sanctuary. Easter Sunday is the most important day of the Christian year as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

Of course, these events did not happen as usual this year. COVID-19 required most churches to live-stream these times of worship.

Ever conscious of appropriate attire and accessories, Clare said, “I need to sort out my cross necklaces.”

She has several. One she received from her parents when as a child, she was confirmed in the Methodist Church. She has a Jerusalem cross that I purchased for her when we traveled to the Holy Land. She also has a small reddish-brown cross on a simple ribbon given to her by family friends when she was a child. It is a fairy cross.

Not long after the birth of our first grandchild, Clare and I were at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, North Carolina. Clare found a simple fairy cross on a gold chain for sale. We bought the cross for our new granddaughter.

No one knows how the mysterious fairy crosses came to be.  Even scientists cannot agree on their origin.  One theory estimates that the cross-shaped rocks are as much as 500 million years old and were formed when a meteorite broke apart upon entering the earth’s atmosphere.  Another theory suggests that the reddish-brown crystals came from deep within the earth and were gradually forced to the surface by seismic activity over thousands of years. 

As fascinating as these scientific theories are, I find the legend of the fairy crosses much more interesting. 

One version told by the first European settlers in the Appalachian Mountains is that at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, the angels shed tears. Their tears crystallized and fell to earth in the form of crosses.  They were called faith crosses.  

Another variation is that the tiny crosses were formed by the tears of the Cherokee Indians who wept over the loss of their homeland when they were forcibly evacuated on the infamous Trail of Tears.

The Native Americans had a much older legend about the crosses that was popular long before their removal to Oklahoma. This oldest myth concerns an ancient race of mountain fairies known by the Cherokees as the little people.   It is said that long ago, the fairies were dancing around a stream of water celebrating the arrival of spring in the Smokey Mountains.  An elfin messenger brought sad news from the Land of the Dawn, reporting the crucifixion of Christ.  Gladness was turned to sorrow, and the fairies wept.  As they cried, their tears fell to the ground, forming the little crosses of stone.

So, with the joy gone from their hearts, they wandered away into the forest. But around the spot where they had been dancing and singing, where they had wept, the ground was covered with small crosses.

What happened to the little people? No one knows for sure. The elders of the tribe said that after that day, the little people were never seen again. But they say on spring nights when the moon is full, you can hear them whispering along the river. When there is a gentle spring breeze, the sighing of the little people can be heard in the forest.

Found embedded in rocks that have been subjected to high heat and pressure, fairy stones are staurolite, a combination of silica, iron, and aluminum. Together, these minerals sometimes crystallize and appear in the rocks as a cross-like structure.

The word staurolite derives from the Greek stauros, which means cross. The crystalline forms are most commonly shaped like St. Andrew’s and Roman crosses.

In the southeastern United States, fairy crosses are found in only a few places. The town of Blue Ridge in Fannin County, Georgia, is often called the southern gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The tiny crosses have been found nearby. Staurolite is the official state mineral of Georgia.

The Cherokee County Historical Museum in Murphy, North Carolina, features a large display of fairy crosses. Many of the small stone crosses have been found in neighboring Brasstown, North Carolina. 

Near the town of Stuart in Patrick County, Virginia, Fairy Stone State Park is a short drive from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Known as the home of the fairy stones, the park is the most popular location to search for the tiny crosses. The fairy cross Clare received as a child came from this area of southern Virginia.

Fairy crosses are thought to bring good luck.  Because their average size is about an inch, they are comfortable to wear as jewelry.  Traditionally, mountain folk believed that the cross protected the wearer against witchcraft, diseases, and accidents. The Cherokees associated the stones with the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water.  When worn or carried, the crosses were thought to restore the balance of life.

Legend has it that upon their first meeting, Pocahontas gave Captain John Smith a fairy cross as a token of friendship.  Other famous people known to have owned these cross-shaped rocks were Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Fairy crosses have found their way into rare collections of gems.  Some have been polished and ground to beautiful symmetry and mounted in gold.

The staurolite crystals shaped like crosses are supposed to have powers of protection against harm. They are said to have miraculous power to ensure health and wealth.

Clare has had her fairy cross since she was a child. The fairy cross is like other cross-shaped jewelry. It is a reminder of an old rugged cross, the one at a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull.

For Christians, the cross itself is a beautiful emblem, an outward sign of an inward grace. Be it a brass cross on an altar between two candlesticks, or a cross perched high on a steeple, be it a silver or gold pendant worn on a chain, or a fairy cross on a ribbon, it is far more than a good luck charm. During these weeks following Easter, the cross is a reminder of divine love.

That is precisely the point of the legend of the fairy cross.

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