To get a “black mark,” we understand from the common lexicon, isn’t a good thing — except on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians observe the beginning of Lent with a smudge of ash on their foreheads as a reminder of their mortality.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as the Ash Wednesday admonition goes, a somber recognition that in the great cycle of earthly life, none of us is here for very long.

It’s a reality that resonates among those of all faiths, or even no particular religious faith at all, although our culture does much to deny it.

Cosmetics and fashion falsely promise eternal youth, and politics promotes the equally hollow promise of power as a permanent commodity, as if our smallest desires might be attained by legislation or decree.

Ash Wednesday points us to a different — and healthier — perspective on the human condition, one that acknowledges the limits of personal ambition, the boundaries of earthly human life itself.

Lent reminds us how small we are in the scheme of things, a welcome corrective to the narcissism of our politics, the narrowness of our generosity, the nastiness of reality TV.

The start of Lent today also means another chance to embrace the cause of personal improvement, a prospect that couldn’t come at a better time.

This is the point of the year, after all, when many of us realize, as we do every February, that those well-meaning New Year’s resolutions made last month haven’t come to very much.

Many people use Lent as a season to either give up some small pleasure, like chocolate or cake, or resolve to do something extra, like helping a neighbor or volunteering at a food bank. The hope is that these small personal disciplines will help deepen our spiritual resolve for bigger challenges.

At the very least, Lent brings the news that although we remain imperfect in a year still young, there’s a new opportunity to become a little thinner, a little stronger, maybe even a little kinder.

And there’s this, too: Although Lent isn’t meant to be a jolly time, it serves as a bridge between winter and spring. We shivered a bit yesterday as the Mardi Gras parades rolled, still bracing ourselves against the cold and wind that continue to touch south Louisiana.

But the march of Lent is taking us, slowly but surely, to a warmer place, a destination softened by pastel skies, greening lawns, a flowering landscape.

Despite the grayness of Ash Wednesday, we know that Easter is just over a month away.