The story of the feeding of the 5,000 has some obvious similarities to the Communion service, and also to the actions of the Lord at the last Supper, when He gave to the disciples what was to be the new and distinctive form of Christian worship. It is more than just a matter of history to look at these similarities. To see them is to gain a deeper appreciation of this service which our Lord commanded us to do; and to look at this Gospel selection in this way will also encourage us in our faithfulness to Christ, for in our faithfulness to Him still lies the way to salvation.
When Christ learned that the disciples had some resources which He could use to feed the crowd. He said to them, "Make the men sit down." The people were organized as for worship at His command; He assumed control, and led them in what happened. So He is with us in our worship, and is the real leader and celebrant when we have the Communion service.
"Jesus took the loaves, " writes John; that is. He accepted what was offered to Him for use in His work. As we bring our offerings, He accepts them; and although the service doesn't make it as clear as it once was, the bread and wine are part of our offering. These were once brought by the people; the server represents the congregation as he brings these to the celebrant; who, as a rubric on page 73 directs, "shall then offer, and shall place upon the Holy Table, the Bread and the Wine."
In his account of this miraculous feeding. Mark tells us that Jesus "looked up to heaven" just before He blessed the bread. This action of looking up to heaven became a feature of some ancient communion prayers; and it is still appropriate at the point in the Prayer of Consecration when the celebrant says, "And here we offer and present unto thee, 0 Lord, our selves..." It's an action that reminds us that heaven is the source of all of our blessings; that, as Saint James wrote, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights."
John says next, "When he had given thanks;" and the Greek word used for "giving thanks" is the origin of the word, "Eucharist," one of the names given to the Communion service. It stresses the fact that this service is "our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving." The Greek word was used especially of the giving of thanks customary at the beginning of a feast, or of a meal. Christ gave thanks by blessing God: "Blessed art thou, O Lord, king of the universe, who bringeth forth bread from the earth." We begin the Prayer of Consecration with words which give glory to God for sending Christ, the Bread of Life.
At this point in his account. Mark says that Christ "broke the loaves;" and this breaking of the loaves is implied by Saint John when he recounts the distribution of the bread to the people. The Lord repeated this action with the bread at the Last Supper, and we still do this in every Communion service. Christ's body was not literally broken on the Cross, but the breaking of the bread certainly suggests His suffering there. Luke tells us that the Risen Christ was recognized by the two disciples at Emmaus when He sat down at the supper table with them, and blessed and broke bread and gave it to them. The "Breaking of Bread" was apparently the first name used for the Communion service; and by God's grace, we still know the Lord in this way.
Next in the feeding of the 5,000 came the equivalent of the people's receiving Communion; as John says, "Jesus . . . distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down." In ancient services of Communion, the Bishop would bless the bread and wine, and then distribute these to the Deacons, his assistants, who would then give the blessed elements to the people. Though this way of doing the service has changed, yet bread and wine blessed by Christ are still given to His people, as the loaves and fishes were blessed and given to the five thousand.
All of the people there received "as much as they would." What the Lord had for them was adequate; and this fact reminds us of the spiritual adequacy of the Holy Communion, and of Christ as our Savior. It reminds us, also, of a traditional name for today, "Refreshment Sunday," given because of the Gospel for today. And this name recalls a statement in the Second Office of Instruction about the Lord's Supper, that its benefit is "the strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ."
Then, after all the people had eaten, Christ said to His disciples, "Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost." These pieces were left over because it was the custom at Jewish banquets to leave some food for the servants, so these pieces were left so that the disciples, who had served the people, could have something to eat. In the ancient Church, all the members of a congregation would bring offerings of bread and wine; what was not needed for use in the service would be set aside, and later given to the poor. We are also reminded by the gathering up of the fragments, "that nothing be lost," of the care which we take with the consecrated or blessed bread and wine left over after people have received their communion. One of the General Rubrics at the end of the service reads, And if any of the consecrated Bread and Wine remain after the Communion, it shall not be carried out of the Church; but the Minister and other Communicants shall, immediately after the Blessing, reverently eat and drink the same. We don't customarily follow the rubric in every detail; but "that nothing be lost," and out of reverence for the Lord and for the holy use for which the bread and wine are blessed, any left over is reverently eaten and drunk.
So at the feeding of the multitude, Christ took these actions of looking up to heaven after receiving the bread and fishes from the disciples, blessing and breaking the bread, and having it distributed to the people. What He did was appropriate to the occasion, but He also must have been looking forward to the Last Supper, where He repeated these actions, and added to them and to their meaning in a wonderful way. He also told the apostles and all those who followed them in the Church, "Do this in remembrance of me." When Christians began to "Do this" they looked to the example He had set on how to carry out the worship which He had commanded for His followers. Christians are still obeying His command to "Do this in remembrance of me," and still following His example of how the service should be done – because this is what He commanded; and this is the example He set; and to be faithful to Him, and to His example and to His commandments, and to partake of this Blessed Sacrament in repentance and faith, are still the way of salvation.