The Shrine of Nazareth was built over a grotto that was part of the Virgin Mary's house...
Today's shrine was built over a grotto that was in part the house of the Holy Family. The other part was built of stone, and sent to Loreto, Italy in the year 1294. (See: Holy House of Loreto Shrine.)
...in honor of the Annunciation and the Incarnation: two facets of the same event.
The Old Testament makes no mention of the humble town of Nazareth, located on the border of the country of Israel, in the "Land of Galilee."
The Angel Gabriel came to announce to a virgin that she would be the mother of Christ. This is the "Annunciation." The name of the virgin was Mary, betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter. The angel greeted her, saying "Rejoice," just as the daughter of Zion was greeted. He answered her question regarding the Child's conception, explaining that she would conceive without losing her virginity, by the power of the Most High, the Holy Spirit, because this was the "Incarnation" of the Son of God. The angel waited for Mary's response, and she gave her consent: "You see before you the Lord's servant, let it happen to me as you have said," (i.e. according to your words.)
Then Jesus, the Son of God, joined our humanity in the womb of the Virgin Mary (this is the "Incarnation"). The Virgin Mary said Yes, just as the Hebrew people had done at Mount Sinai: and a "New Covenant" began.
In the Gospel of St Matthew, we are told that Joseph had his own annunciation, when the angel of the Lord spoke to him in a dream: "Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit."
Venerate Mary and Adore Jesus
The manner in which Luke wrote his gospel reveals the early Church's veneration of Mary. She is the Mother of the Messianic King, the Virgin Mother, the Mother of the Son of God.
Coming to this shrine in Nazareth is a way of getting closer to the mystery of Mary, Daughter of Zion, Wife of the Covenant, Virgin Mother of the Son of God.
The Gospel of Luke tells in chapter 4 that the people of Nazareth were not receptive to the mystery of Jesus, and when he preached in the synagogue, they were angered by his authority and tried to kill him, but Jesus went his own way. The disciples, who were open to Christ's mystery, believed that he spoke with the same authority as Moses, and that he was greater than Moses and Elijah. Jesus took prerogatives in the temple and the Torah, he was a legislator like God. Just as God forgives, Jesus creates anew, like God. Finally the disciples were open to the idea of his divinity.
Coming to this shrine is also a way of being open to the mystery of Jesus, Son of God incarnate.
Archeology Reveals the Successive Constructions
In 1730, the Friars of Terra Santa built a church over the Grotto of the Annunciation, with only a six-month building permit, which left them no time to do any archaeological excavations.
For years, the Custody of the Holy Land wanted to build a proper church worthy of the great mystery commemorated in Nazareth. Finally, the project began to take shape in 1951, but before the actual construction began, systematic excavations were conducted in 1955 under the leadership of Fr. Bellarmino Bagatti, OFM. Remains of a synagogue-church, a Byzantine church and a church dating back to the Crusades were unearthed. The architect strove to focus on the historical value of these remains in the new construction. An esplanade also protects the vestiges of the remains of the village of Nazareth.
The Testimony of Ancient Texts
At the time of the persecution of Decius (249-251), a Christian named Conon admitted that he was from Nazareth, related to Jesus' family, and that he worshipped Jesus as his ancestors did. His testimony corresponds archaeologically to the first Jewish-Christian synagogue-church.
During the following century, Saint Jerome (4th century) wrote that the Grotto was a place of pilgrimage. His testimony was confirmed by the excavation of the Byzantine Shrine. Later, the Muslim presence made access to Nazareth more and more difficult for Christians.
When the Crusaders arrived in 1102, the city was in ruins except the place of the actual shrine, which was a beautiful monastery. The Crusaders constructed a beautiful Romanesque church that digs would later find.
Pope Paul VI visited the shrine in 1964 and gave a wonderful summary of the three lessons of Nazareth: "a lesson of silence, a lesson of daily work, and a lesson of family life."
Pope John Paul II came to Nazareth and celebrated Mass on March 25, 2000, for the Great Jubilee of the Annunciation - Incarnation. His homily is published in a subsequent article.