Saints of the Day – 24 December – Saints Tarsilla and Emiliana (died sixth century) Virgins
Today we celebrate the feast day of Saints Emiliana and Tarsilla, Virgins of the Church and aunts of Saint Pope Gregory the Great (540-604). What we know of their lives was recorded by the holy pope, who was deeply moved by their model of Christian life and virtue.
Born in Rome, Emiliana and Tarsilla were the daughters of senator Gordian and Saint Silvia. Nieces of Pope Saint Felix III, the young women were destined for lives of holiness and together, while quite young, renounced the world. As young women, they together consecrated themselves to the Lord, desiring to stay pure. Their house was as a convent and the two spent so much time kneeling in prayer that their knees and elbows arthritically locked in the position of prayer. Living as hermits, they encouraged one another in the ways of the faith, drawing deeper and deeper into the spiritual life.
Tarsilla and Emiliana had a third sister, Gordiana, who had initially made the same vows and consecrated herself to the Lord. Gradually, however, she withdrew from her sisters, returning to the world. Their reproaches fell on deaf ears and caused them significant sadness and grief.
Saint Tarsilla died prior to Saint Emiliana but not before she received a vision of her uncle, Pope Saint Felix. In her vision, the pope appeared to her, showing her a place of great beauty. He said, “Come, I will receive you into this habitation of light.” Immediately, she fell ill with fever. Her sister ministered to her but to no avail. By the following day, her illness had grown worse. Saint Tarsilla, in agonising pain, called out to those around her; “Make way! Jesus is coming!” With her eyes fixed firmly on heaven, she died soon thereafter and a heavenly fragrance filled the room, confirming her visions.
Saint Emiliana was deeply saddened, made more difficult by missing her sister on Christmas. Emiliana received consolation in the form of a vision of her sister, however. In this vision, Tarsilla encouraged, “My sister, come! I did not celebrate with you the birth of the Lord but together we will celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.” “If you call only me,” Emiliana replied, “what will become of our sister, Gordiana?” “Come,” Tarsilla sadly answered. “Our sister has decided to remain with the world.” Soon thereafter, Saint Emiliana fell ill and promptly joined her sister in heaven. Their relics are kept at the Oratory of Saint Andrew on the Celian Hill in Rome.
Pope Saint Gregory the Great recounted the tale of his aunts throughout his lifetime. He used it to illustrate the point that we must work constantly to save our souls, repenting for our actions. To Saint Gregory, there is no point in beginning the work of salvation, if we do not plan to see it through to the end. As we prepare for the birth of Our Lord, we look to our own commitments. Are we ready to greet the infant Christ, come to redeem and save us?
Tonight, we echo the sentiment of Saint Tarsilla: “Make way! Jesus is coming!” How might we use this dark night—lit by the choirs of angels—to prepare for the coming of the Lord?