When we speak of the long-ago past, it is often difficult to sort out fact, as we know it, from legend. Remember that in previous cultures they did not think of history as a linear narration of facts, as we do. Rather they were telling the story of lives, stories of relationships of peoples.
There is little information about Mary in the Gospels. They tell us nothing about Mary's parents, not even their names, nor the circumstances of her birth. They do not tell us about a presentation of Mary like Luke does for Jesus.
But you might say that we do know the names of her parents. Well, take another look at the Gospels and you won't find them there. Where do we get the names of Anne and Joachim then? And from where did we get Mary's presentation?
From other documents that were in circulation around that time but which weren't accepted as part of the canon of the New Testament. Catholics call these apocryphal literature.
A variety of books fall into this category. The word "apocrypha" means hidden or secret because these texts claim to offer material which was hidden until their writings. They often tend to present themselves as authoritative by assuming names of inspired writers or important people. But this was not an uncommon practice nor was it considered deceitful.
Although some of the apocryphal books were mentioned by the early Church fathers, a number of them have been discovered, often in fragment form, during the past 50 years or so. Some of these provide some valid historical facts while others seem to present rather odd ideas like the boy Jesus making clay birds and giving them life.
Still others support what the Church considers heretical views such as gnosticism. Although these writings are not accepted as canonical, they can be of some value.
It is from these apocryphal books that we get information about Mary. The Gospel of James gives us the names of Mary's parents, Anne and Joachim, which the Church has accepted, giving them feast days and naming churches in their honour. The story of Mary's presentation is also in James, as well as in others. Several of these give a variety of details on the lives of Mary and Joseph and of Jesus as a child.
So, did Mary really go to the Temple at the age of three? Some sources say that it was the high priest Simeon, John the Baptist's father, who received her and that she ran up the stairs of the Temple without even looking back at her parents because she was so eager to give herself to God.
There is documentation indicating that women and girls had their own areas where they lived and served in the Temple and studied Scripture. This may have been a practical way of educating girls. This practice seems to have continued throughout the centuries. We know of young girls, such as the 12th century mystic Hildegard, placed at a very young age, to be educated by women in monasteries.
The origins of the feast are not completely clear and its history is not without some bumps. It may have originated in Syria and was celebrated as early as the sixth century in Jerusalem. It came west only in the middle of the 14th century.
But at the end of the Middle Ages it wasn't included in many official diocesan calendars of the saints. In the 1400s, it was assigned to be celebrated on Sept. 30 and Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) included it in the Roman Breviary. Pope Pius V (1559-65) took it out of the Roman calendar and Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) put it back in.
The important point of this feast is not so much whether Mary was actually presented in the Temple or her being fed by angels or leaving her parents without looking back but rather the symbolism of her total consecration to God and her ardent desire to serve God.
By offering herself totally and without hesitation, Mary thus becomes the model for all who desire to follow and serve God. This feast has become special for those who offer their lives in complete service to God: priests and members of religious orders, both female and male. Like Mary, they totally dedicate themselves to give Christ to the world.
But is not this the role of all Christians, to become and give Christ to the world? Therefore, Mary becomes the model for all of us.