It was a few weeks before Christmas and my parents were at a local fast food restaurant having a cup of coffee after finishing the last of their seasonal shopping. Things were especially good for them that year. My brother and I were grown and were starting families of our own. There was no more private school tuition to pay. Not as many pennies to pinch and judging by the treasures hidden in the trunk of their car, it was clear we were all in store for a truly blessed holiday.
But in the booth across the way, things were not as merry. A woman was frantically rummaging through her handbag looking for something she’d misplaced while her friend asked if she was sure she didn’t leave it at home.
“I’m positive,” she said sadly. “I put it in my bag right before we left the house.”
“Maybe it fell out of your purse when we got out of the car,” the friend suggested, running out to check the parking lot.
A few minutes later, she came back looking dejected. “It wasn’t near the car and it wasn’t inside.”
“What am I going to do?” The first woman was near tears. “That was my check to buy the kids’ Christmas presents!”
“How much was it?” The friend wanted to know.
“Sixty dollars.” She replied, as if it were a million.
Now my parents were far from wealthy, but knowing their generosity around the holidays at that stage of their life, sixty dollars was a small drop in a good-sized bucket. It wasn’t always that way, of course. Over the years my mom and dad certainly knew about the struggle to make ends meet. They never took real vacations. They bought used cars and they squirrled away a few dollars each week in a holiday savings account to buy is presents ranging from the things we needed (like socks and underwear) to a few of the things we really wanted. That year though, it was as if all of their hard word and diligence had paid off and finally they were able to splurge a little and enjoy the fruits of their hard-earned labor. The woman’s plight brought them back to reality with a jolt.
“Let’s check the trash can,” the friend said. “Maybe we accidentally threw it away.”
The two found the manager, explained the situation and asked him to open up the formica bin by the front door. As they dug through the garbage in hopes of finding the money, patrons took their to go orders, dumped their trash in the adjacent bin and walked by, unaware of the drama that was unfolding. My parents also finished their coffee, put on their coats and gathered their things. My father also reached into his wallet.
“Here,” he said to the woman, handing her three crisp $20 bills. “Merry Christmas.”
The woman burst into tears. “Sir, I can’t take this!”
“Yes you can,” Dad assured her. “Go get your kids their presents.”
She turned to her friend and asked for a pen. “I want to get your address so that I can reimburse you if I find the check.”
My dad waved her away. “If you find the check, then have a Happy New Year as well.”
There were more tears, a couple of hugs and a lot of gratitude and I’ll never forget the look of pride in my mother’s face when she relayed what had happened to me later that night. In fact, I’ve never told a soul about it until now. We always hear about those mysterious strangers who show up in the right place at the right time, but how often do you get the chance to pinch hit for Christ and do unto others as He has done unto you? At this time of year we know the work outnumbers the available hands, but we can all do a little something. Let us never forget that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. God has blessed us by giving us the gift of life, and what we do with our lives and for others is our gift to Him.
Today’s Mass readings: IS 30:19-21, 23-26; PS 147: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6; MT 9:35B-10:1, 5A, 6-8