Baptism was a very important and elaborate rite in the early Church. It was considered almost of equal importance to the sacred liturgy of the Eucharist.
To grasp the crucial role women deacons played in the ministration of baptism for female catechumens, we need to explain the ritual step by step. The sequence of items could vary from place to place. In the description that follows mention of ‘catechumens’ refers to ‘female catechumens’.
The rite of baptism started with many preparatory prayers, litanies, exorcisms and invocations.
Examination of faith
The catechumens were examined regarding their faith. Here the deaconess, who had instructed them, would assist the women.
The Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua preserves an ancient tradition when it states: “Widows or nuns, who are chosen to the ministery of the women that need to be baptized, should be so instructed to this office that they can teach unskilled and rural women with clear and sound words, both as to how to respond to the questions put by the baptizer at the moment of baptism and how to live after the reception of baptism.”
(Note: Deaconesses had ceased to exist in the West at the time of the Statuta’s redaction. So ‘widows or nuns’ was substituted for ‘deaconesses’. See also Statuta c. 12; Pseudo-Jerome, On St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans chap. 16 § 1.)
Anointing with the oil of catechumens
At the entrance to the baptistry, the officiating bishop or priest would anoint the catechumens with a sign of the cross on the forehead, saying a prayer such as: “I anoint you with the oil of gladness which overcomes all violence of the enemy and by which you will be protected in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Then the woman deacon would take the catechumens into the baptistry itself. There she would strip them of all their clothes and ornaments. The woman deacon would then anoint them with the oil of catechumens over every part of their body.
It is clear that both the stripping and anointing were total.
* ‘The person to be baptised is stripped naked . . . All silver and gold ornaments, and clothes, are taken off’ . . . ‘Anoint that person on his breast, his arms, his stomach, his back, in the middle of both hands, etc.’ (an ancient Copt Ritual from Egypt; H.Denzinger, Ritus Orientalium, vol.I, Würzburg 1863, pp. 192-214).
* ‘The baptiser takes the olive oil and pours it into the cup of his hand, then anoints the whole body of the person who is to be baptised’ (an ancient Jacobite Ritual from Syria;Ritus Orientalium, pp. 267-279).
* ‘The deacon removes from the catechumen all clothes, ornaments, earrings and whatever they wear ’ . . . ‘The baptizer pours the oil for anointing into the cup of his hands and rubs it on the whole body of the catechumen, also in between the fingers of his hands and the toes of his feet, and his limbs, and his front and his back.’ (Ritual of Jacob of Edessa, 950 AD; Ritus Orientalium, pp. 279-288).
* ‘The deacon strips the catechumen of his clothes and of everything else’ . . . .‘The priest takes the oil of anointment into his hands, and anoints the whole body’. (Ritual of Severus, Patriarch of Antioch;Ritus Orientalium, pp. 302-316.)
* ‘The deacon anoints the catechumen all over the body’. (an ancient Maronite Ritual; Ritus Orientalium, pp. 334-350.)
“Ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for the ministrations towards women. For sometimes he cannot send a deacon, who is a man, to the women, on account of unbelievers. Thou shalt therefore send a woman, a deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad. For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess, for many necessities; and first in the baptism of women, the deacon shall anoint only their forehead with the holy oil, and after him the deaconess shall anoint them: for there is no necessity that the women should be seen by the men.”
The immersion into the water
The deaconess led the (female) catechumen down the steps, from the west to the east, so that the catechumen faced east. In the middle the font was about 3 feet deep.
According to some sources, the Bishop or priest (the baptizer) had also descended into the font. This person then immersed the catechumen three times, saying a formula such as: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The baptizer then handed the newly baptized person to the deacon or deaconess, who brought them up the steps, dried them with a towel and helped them put on white dress.
This is a possible interpretation of the Apostolic Constitutions 3,16:
“After that, either thou, O bishop, or a presbyter that is under thee, shall in the solemn form name over them the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, and shall dip them in the water; and let a deacon receive the man, and a deaconess the woman, that so the conferring of this inviolable seal may take place with a becoming decency. And after that, let the bishop anoint those that are baptized with ointment.”
It is also possible, and even likely, that the immersion itself was done by the deacon or the deaconess, while the baptismal formula was spoken either by them or by the Bishop or priest who stood outside the baptistry. The immersion of a female catechumen by the deaconess seems to follow from these indications:
The expression ‘to receive’ in ‘the deacon shall receive a man’, ‘the deaconess shall receive a woman’ may originally have meant: ‘immerse’. We find the expression in some baptismal rituals.
The anxiety that ‘no man should see’ a female catechumen naked (Apost. Const. 3,15) and that the conferring of baptism be done ‘with becoming decency’ (Apostolic Constitutions 3,16) require that the deaconess does both the anointing and the immersion.
The Didascalia seems to imply this when it says: “But let a man pronounce over them the invocation of the divine Names in the water”.
The opposition to ‘women baptizing’ among some Fathers in the West (e.g.Tertullian; Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua) and which is also present in the Apostolic Constitutions 3,9 obviously reflects an even more direct involvement of male and female deacons in some part of the Church.
Anointing with Chrism
The anointing with holy Chrism, our present sacrament of Confirmation, was then performed by the Bishop or priest, with the assistance of the deacon or deaconess.